Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Rush R40 Countdown at No. 5: Power Windows and Roll the Bones transport us to special times, places

We're moving into the top quarter of our R40 Countdown and the epic Rush concert in Chicago is getting closer! Both Will and I are recalling how a particular Rush release instantly transports us to a special time and place.

No. 5 Power Windows
Released 1985

Highlights: “Grand Designs,” “Emotion Detector.”

Relatively least-glorious moment: “Territories.”

Cool Neil Peart lyrical moment:

“Like a righteous inspiration
Overlooked in haste
Like a teardrop in the ocean
A diamond in the waste
Some world-views are spacious –
And some are merely spaced”
--- Grand Designs

Power Windows always will bring back memories of my days at University of Missouri.

Going to school halfway across the country forced a great disruption in my music-listening habits. I flew back and forth to Columbia, meaning my extensive record collection wasn’t coming with me. 

I had a modest boom box with a cassette player, so I made greatest hits mix tapes of my favorite bands and brought the essential tapes of Twisted Sister concerts that were broadcast on the radio.
The sparsely decorated Room 4, Cramer Hall.
And speaking of radio, I was separated from the New York radio stations that made for the soundtrack for my daily routines, replaced with strangers with call letters starting with a "K."

We’re talking about a major cultural adjustment here. And that’s not even counting being surrounded by Cardinals fans at a time when the Mets were the team’s main rivals.

So, I learned about the Cardinals and the amazing Arch in St. Louis. I discovered culinary adventures like corn dogs and biscuits and gravy.  And I learned about new and different music, like Purple Rain-era Prince and the Pretenders.

I liked these new things – even some of the Prince stuff -- but never let go of my roots.
And Rush, of course, was one of the things I wasn’t letting go of. The dorm room had a Moving Pictures poster along with the New York skyline and Mets posters.

So Power Windows will forever remind me of an important time.

Playing the CD recently, I was struck that the keyboards certainly harken back to the 1980s – and I like 1980s music – but is still sounds fresh. These are good songs. There’s no denying the synths are there, but they augment instead of overwhelm.

And the band seems to like Power Windows, too, considering that all but one of the songs has been played live and a number of them are played often.

There was much rejoicing when I discovered “Grand Designs” – my fave cut – was dusted off for the last tour, which makes me hopeful that “Emotion Detector” – my second favorite – will finally get the concert airing it deserves.
"Grand Designs" is awesome live!

Since its Rush, we’re dealing with some big topics and the album’s theme is the use of power in its many manifestations, from the dawn of the atomic age to wielding financial clout.

Top to bottom, there’s not a bad song on the album. “Territories” was listed above as the least glorious moment, but it’s still a very good song.

I’m sure the album also benefits from coming out in the cassette era where each song was listened to and studied intently.  I know them all well.

So when “Big Money” or “Mystic Rhythms” come over the speakers, I’m instantly transported back to walking around campus with my Walkman.

And Will jumps in:

No. 5: Roll the Bones
Released 1991

Roll the Bones was released at a time when my Rush rediscovery was at a peak, and like with Dave and Power Windows, it definitely takes me back to a specific time--late 1991 to early 1992, when I saw Rush live three times. It was a time of baseball cards, baseball card columns, sports at the Flint Journal and when I made what at the time was a shocking discovery.

Unlike Dave, I grew up in a mid-market metroplex, and I couldn't wait to leave. Columbus in my youth was a city that rolled up the sidewalk at 5--even though it was a state capitol and had a major university at its hub. I wasn't an Ohio State fan, not like everyone else, and sometime just as I was entering my teens, OSU stopped holding concerts at St. John Arena, so no one who was big and current came to Columbus.
Unlike my friends, who all went to OSU, I went away to college. I was free. I discovered Chicago and wanted to live there at some point, but life got in the way, so I found myself in Flint, but I'd met Dave by this time and we were like a couple of 10-year-olds whose moms had given them the green light to ride their bikes to the pharmacy ... just so long as you're home by dinner!
I was loving working in sports; it was a good time, but ... I felt this longing, a longing that Rush was able to articulate all too well. I mean, "Dreamline," like "Subdivisions" a decade earlier, seemed to be written entirely for my benefit. Then there was "Bravado" and "Neurotica" and "Ghost of a Chance." All of these great songs were hitting me just at the right time.

In the fall of 1991, just after I saw Rush twice in the span of a week--once with Dave at the Palace, once in Cleveland with my father--I went home to Columbus for a number of reasons. Once was one of my best high-school friend's wedding. The next was for a vacation. I'd decided I didn't want to take another solo vacation, so what to do? Just go home and hang out with my old friends.

It was an eye-opening experience. Now that was an adult, well, of adult age, I found that Columbus held charms that hadn't been fully appreciated--mostly a far larger pool of prospective women than Flint could ever afford ... unless, of course, I wanted to grab one off the pole.

Columbus also had changed a bit since I'd been there. In the time since I'd been gone, it had turned into something of a burgeoning culinary town. German Village was thriving. And I had a big circle of friends there. I remember sitting at the table during a poker party thinking, you know ... I could move back here.
Like I said, that was a shocking development for someone who a decade earlier couldn't wait to get out and never look back. Things change. I began to make it my goal to get a job at the Columbus newspaper--a goal that eventually was achieved.
Becoming an OSU fan again? Well, that would take a little longer.

Your countdown so far:

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Bad postcard of the week: Clinton, Ind. and its immigration tribute is an instant classic!

We see a lot of wonderfully bad postcards, but occasionally we stumble across an instant classic that defines the genre.

Yesterday I was sifting through an antique store bin looking for good postcards – “large letter” designs for an office project – when this beauty jumped out at me.

This is amazing. I thought the beloved “Truman Family Shopping Center” was the best-ever bad postcard. The torch has been passed.

Let’s get the basic stuff out of the way first.

The back reads:

“Immigrant Square Area, Clinton, Indiana. Bronze Statue to honor the many immigrants who worked in the coal mines. The flags are of the thirty nations from which they came.  The drinking fountain, a replica of one in Torino, Italy, was presented by Mr.  & Mrs. Joe Aoroia. For information on Little Italy Festival: Lift Inc., Clinton, Ind. 47842."

So much to work with here.

First, why is the photographer standing so far away? Is he the subject of a personal protection order? Does he now have a zoom lens? We just don’t know.

First, the entire card of off center. Ideally, our immigrant statue would be in the focal point of the postcard. Then again, if would be nice to see the statue, rather than have it blend into the trees. Luckily there’s a fence from keeping people from getting too close.

The green thing that looks sort of like “Mary on a half shell” is the water fountain, and I know that only because I Googled the area and found another photo.

Let’s get to the stars of our bad postcard. I’m going to make an assumption that the man and woman standing there are Joe and his better half.

I’ve learned from a Clinton attractions page that her name is Josephine. I’m sure they’ve heard all the jokes about the names, so let’s move on. The couple presented the city with the fountain after a 1970 trip to Italy. 

And, it’s a regular fountain, not a drinking fountain, unless you plan to lie on the ground.

But, who are the two women off to the other side? Are they photobombing the postcard? Does the one lady have her arms on the other to restrain her from hopping over the fence? She looks kind of rowdy. Hey, Mabel! Let Joe and Jo have their moment! Get out of there!

Don't climb the fence!
But I digress. I see a nice light post in front – it’s the only thing in sharp focus – but what’s the light blue tower rising behind it? Today, that would be a cell phone tower. Back then, I’m not so sure.

But it appears to be gone now. I located Immigrant Square using Google maps – it’s at the corner of N. 9th and Pike next time you’re in the area – and there’s no sign of a pole like that.

I did learn that the city’s Coal Statue is in the same square, and it looks like a taller version of the immigrant statue, but without the immigrant.

Here’s what else I learned. Clinton salutes its immigrants, but it’s pretty much focused on the Italians. I discovered this from the often-accurate Wikipedia:

“Clinton hosts the annual Little Italy Festival, a four-day Labor Day Weekend celebration of the area’s Italian and coal mining heritage. Founded in 1966, the event draws over 75,000 visitors annually, featuring Italian and carnival-style food, grapevine-roofed wine garden,grape stomping, tours and more. The festival also provides free stage entertainment, flea market and the largest Italian-theme parade in the Midwest. The festival is also host to the Indiana Bocce Ball championship, boasts one of the few coal mining museums in the nation, and owns one of fewer than 400 genuine gondolas in the United States. The 2013 Queen of Grapes for the Little Italy Festival is Madie Holland. The Re and Regina for 2013 are Lou and Carol Bonomo”
That's the immigrant statue on the left, coal statue on the right.
So, Clinton, Indiana seems like a nice place, and we’ve learned so much about it through a classically bad postcard.

Bad postcards of the past:

April 13, 2014: Newsflash -- water is wet!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Bad postcard of the week: Fort Riley, tragedy and baseball 20 years ago today

This week’s bad postcard has a bit more of a story about it.

The postcard shows us Fort Riley in Kansas – from a great distance. We’re so far away that we can’t make out anything other than it appears an interstate runs alongside of it.

That’s a shame, because the fort has an interesting history – including that Jackie Robinson was once station there. But so were Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, which is why I once stayed nearby.

That brings us to a tale from the archives. You see, 20 years ago today I was sitting in a microbrewery at Coors Field in Denver, eating a burger and watching the first televised reports of the Oklahoma City bombing.

In town for an education writers conference, I had no idea that I was about to embark on adventures that had a little bit of danger and, of course, baseball.

The first thing I did after checking in at the Westin was to walk to Coors, which that weekend was to host its first ever game with real players, an exhibition game between the Rockies and the vile Yankees.

This was the year following the baseball strike, and the start of the season was delayed nearly a month because a deal was reached near the end of spring training. Before the deal, the owners had threatened to start the season with replacement players, and Coors had already hosted an exhibition game between the replacement Rockies and replacement Yanks.

After lunch, I walked around taking photos of the outside of the stadium and raiding the gift shop of inaugural year merchandise.

Passing the box office, I thought, "What the heck," and asked if there were any tickets available for the game, which was scheduled for the following night, the same time as the keynote address of the education writers conference.

My experience is that when you’re asking for just one ticket, you can sometimes get in to a game that’s listed as being sold out, especially on the day before the game. Teams hold back tickets for players and VIPs, and if they're not going to be used they send them to the box office. But I surely didn’t expect there to be anything for a first game at a new stadium.

But the patient woman behind the glass said that she could indeed get me in, and with a pretty good seat, too.

This was a pretty heavy decision. And a lot of things weighed on my mind. I’d have to miss the keynote address of my conference. But this was the first game at Coors Field with real players with a seat behind home plate.

Indeed, these things weighed on my mind for a matter of three or four nanoseconds before I slipped the required cash under the window.

Coors is an absolutely wonderful stadium, beautiful with its exposed brick and green ironwork. There’s a row of purple seats in the upper deck to note when you are a mile above sea level, and you can see the spectacular Rocky Mountains if you face away from field.

Before the game I bought an official souvenir ball with both team’s logos on it, and future Hall of Famer Wade Boggs signed it for me.

The vile Yankees won 7-2. Scott Kamieniecki -- my neighbor for a short time -- started the game, and Dante Bichette hit the first of what was to be many Coors homers for him.

After the game I was excited to find out that the Yankees were staying at our hotel, I saw Don Mattingly at the front desk.

The first two days of the conference were pretty informative. Then on the afternoon of the third day I was sitting in a conference room attending a session when the phone on the wall started ringing. This was before we all had cell phones. It was one of the Flint Journal editors. "There’s a Flint connection to the Oklahoma City bombing. Rent a car and get yourself to Kansas." I explained that Colorado and Kansas share a border, but they’re huge and it’s not like driving between Michigan and Ohio. "OK, check out and catch a flight."

I spent my first night in Kansas in the same motel where Timothy McVeigh stayed a couple days before, and passed the place where he rented the Ryder truck that he filled with explosives to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City.

I wasn’t trying to be dramatic -- there just aren’t too many places to stay in that part of Kansas.

My assignment was to cover the court proceedings involving Terry Nichols, and to try to find out as much as I could about the man, who used to be a farmer on the fringes of the Flint Journal’s circulation area.

The next morning I drove down to Herrington, the small town where Nichols lived. I was a day behind the media horde that descended on the town, and it worked out better than I could have hoped.

Police blocked off the streets around Nichols small home the day before as they searched the house for bombs and clues. But this day life had more closely returned to normal and people where back in their homes. I spotted some of Nichols’ neighbors talking in their backyard and they invited me to talk.

Later that night a local church hosted a memorial service for the bombing victims in the biggest room in the town. I sensed a mixture of shock, shame and hurt. I think people had a hard time dealing with the idea that one of their own was somehow involved with such a horrible crime.

Herrington is one of those small Midwestern towns that John Mellencamp sings about. Everyone knows everyone. And I think people were shocked that they didn’t know what this man was capable of doing.
The service was an outlet for these people, as if to say this man was from this place, but he was not one of us. There were a lot of tears. Reporters are supposed to be observers. I felt like an intruder.

I spent much of the next week in Wichita, the closest city and site of the court house where Nichols preliminary hearing would be held. Since we didn’t know which day that would be, I was essentially staking out the courthouse all day.

There were a couple of other reporters doing the same thing, and that leaves time for friendly banter.
I got to know the court people a little bit since I was hanging around the building all week. And late in the week they let me know that Nichols would be coming in the next afternoon and showed me the big courtroom where the proceedings would take place.

Early next day the media horde arrived. The court activity wasn’t going to take place until 1 p.m. but people started setting up to get a glimpse of Nichols being hustled into the building.

A deputy told us that we could start lining up to get into the courtroom at 10 a.m. I planned to hang outside with the others, and I knew the courtroom was plenty big. But something inside told me to get on line. After burning through the Journal’s money all week, if I did not get into that court I’d have a lot of explaining to do once I got back to Flint.

The court officers lined us up on a bench in a lobby down the hall from the courtroom. I was No. 11 on line, with an artists hired by television stations to make the courtroom sketches, an Associated Press reporter, a writer from the Wichita Eagle-Beacon and a woman from a Detroit television station.

We had nice time sitting there gabbing, taking turns going on food runs and letting the artist warm up by sketching us. The line got longer and longer as time passed – I counted well more than 100 people.

A bailiff announced it was time to go in. He looked at the front of the line and counted off. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11 and 12, follow me.” I thought they were taking us down in small groups.

Walking down the long hall, the guy from the Eagle-Beacon joked that we were going to be “In the front row,” saying it in the famous Bob Uecker voice.

We entered the court and I could feel the door close behind me. The big courtroom was already filled with every lawyer, court employee and person with connections who wanted in. We were not in the front row. We were in the last row – and no one else was getting in.

The Eagle-Beacon reporter shot me a wide-eyed look that was part amazement and part sheer joy. We waited on line three hours and got in. People who came minutes after us were down the hall with the people who walked in right at 1 p.m. – and we could faintly hear the angry screams of people who would have to explain to their editors why they did not get in that courtroom.

The proceedings started, and the key testimony was someone who said Nichols told him that “something big was going to happen.”

There at the defense table sat Terry Nichols. I was struck that he looked so … ordinary.

Even after talking to his neighbors, I think I expected a monster. McVeigh, after all, with his buzz cut, focused stare and unrepentant expression, looked the part of someone who could blow up a day-care center.

But there sat a slight man with metal-framed glasses. He didn’t look like a killer. He looked scared.

The proceedings lasted a while. As a person left the room, a harried and grateful reporter who was nest in line was allowed in. And when it was over, people trapped outside swarmed around the Associated Press reporter and pinned him against a wall as he read from his notebook.

I hurried to find a payphone—again, no cellphones at the time. My adventure had taken me away from home for nearly two weeks and it was time to dictate my story and head home.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Rush R40 Countdown at No. 6: In defense of Test for Echo and rehabilitating Grace Under Pressure

Our countdown to the Chicago R40 concert continues, as we work our way from the "least-glorious" Rush album to Moving Pictures. 

No. 6: Test for Echo
Released in 1996

Highlights: “Totem,” “The Color of Right,” “Half the World.”
Least-glorious moment: “Virtuality.”

Cool Neil Peart lyrical moment:

“I’ve got idols and icons, unspoken holy vows
Thoughts to keep well-hidden
Sacred and forbidden
Free to browse among the holy cows”
-- "Totem."

I’ve always liked Test for Echo. Reading some of the comments in Rush forums and noticing that the band rarely plays anything from the album, I think Will and I might be the only ones.

I’m not sure why this is. Will detailed why it might be a struggle for the band, but I never understood the fans piling on. It’s a solid album, building on the heavier feel the band returned to with Counterparts. I thought maybe I was missing something.

So I went through it again, listening intently for otherwise missed flaws.

The title track focuses on the rise of the big televised trials – it was a released a year after the O.J. Simpson fiasco – with calm sections erupting into angry, jagged outbursts. It’s really cool.

“Driven” is another charging rocker that showcases Geddy’s bass. It’s followed by “Half the World,” which has an unusual lyrical structure for Neil, lots of parallel lines, with “half the world” doing something while the other half does not.

Here's a live version of "Driven."

“The Color of Right” contains a line that I think about a lot – “I’m so full of what is right that I can’t see what is good.” It’s been said that I struggle with gray areas and get locked into various positions.

“Time and Motion” is another aggressive song. Not one of my favorites. But I love the first four, so we can afford one that’s not quite as good.

But that brings us to “Totem,” which is my favorite song on the album. Not as heavy and with more melody, I actually used the song for a lesson in the high-school Sunday school class I taught about comparative religions. I liked that after looking at aspects of other religions, Neil ended with “Sweet chariot, swing low, coming for me,” the Christian spiritual. If the band wanted to play this as their obscure, from-the-vault pick for the concert, I know there would be at least one very happy fan.

“Dog Years” seems to get a lot of abuse. Neil’s a little more playful in the lyrics, but the overall message is – like in “Time Stand Still” – that life goes by so fast. I like the line “I’d rather be a tortoise from Galapagos or a span of geological time than be living in these dog years.”

“Virtuality” sounds dated, but remember that the Internet was still in its AOL early days and the idea of throwing your opinions out there for the world to see was new. I never cared for it too much then, and the dated aspect now doesn’t help. But that’s only the second song that I don’t love.

It’s followed by “Resist,” and like “Half the World” and maybe even “Totem” focuses on contradictions. It’s one of the two songs to make it to the stage on later tours.

“Limbo” is a solid instrumental, though I don’t know why the “Monster Mash” samples are inserted.

The album wraps up with “Carve Away the Stone” another introspective rocker that fits in with “Resist,” “Color of Right,” and “Half the World.” Neil’s pointing to Sisyphus, who was condemned to spend eternity pushing a boulder up a hill, only to have it continually roll back to the bottom for him to push again.

Neil’s looking at the baggage we all drag behind us, saying to let some of it go – carving away at the stone to make it lighter as we push ahead.

So that’s just two songs – maybe three depending on “Limbo” – that I don’t love and a bunch I think are great. A little more introspection that we normally get from Rush, and certainly another step with a heavier sound. I don’t know what’s not to love.

And Will jumps in.

I agree. I could have ranked this higher but didn't. For what it's worth, I like "Time and Motion." Also, I didn't tell this story earlier, so I'll do it now: Totems are big in Canada. When Laurie and I visited Nova Scotia last fall, we found this stone beach on Cape Breton Island where literally dozens of tiny totems like the one on the cover of Test For Echo lined the beach out of reach of the Gulf of St. Lawrence . Laurie and I dutifully built our own. I don't think I had Totem in mind, but I definitely was thinking of the album itself.

Anyway, on to my choice ...

No. 6: Grace Under Pressure
Released in 1984

Now here's some irony for you: The album that turned me against Rush now stands above all but five other albums. That's what a little time and different perspective will do for you. My coming to embrace Grace Under Pressure has been decades in the making.

The rehabilitation of the album began with A Show of Hands to a certain extent. I recalled that "Distant Early Warning," the first--and big--hit on the album, was OK, and having a live version of it reminded me that I liked it. (I still was--and remain--lukewarm to "Red Sector A.") Then my brother, who was the king of the bootlegs back before Napster made it easy for everyone to be so, opened my eyes further.

As my Rush love reblossomed in the early Nineties, he made me a copy of a bootleg that would be released more than a decade later as Grace Under Pressure Live. The thing that jumped off the tape--and I would give Dave's eye teeth for the boys to play just once more--was all of Fear, in order. The first part of Fear, of course, which was the last to be released, of course, was "The Enemy Within." I jumped more into "The Weapon," with its totally awesome Count Floyd intro, and "Witch Hunt," but "The Enemy Within" stayed with me.

Grace Under Pressure is one of the few albums that Dave and I have a large disagreement about (the other being Hold Your Fire, which I have near the bottom and Dave still hasn't ranked yet, so it's near the top for him). Dave says it's a dark album. I wouldn't rank it with, say, Tonight's the Night by Neil Young or Dirt by Alice in Chains, but I can see his point. It just so happens that I'm a fan of dark music, particularly when I'm going through a dark period myself.

Such a period began in the spring of 2001 when I went through what was more or less a divorce. At the same time, my brother was struggling with the fact that his father-in-law was dying of cancer in his Forties. He turned me on to a bootleg recording of "Afterimage," and that song hit me like a freight train, immediately getting heavy rotation on this new thing called iTunes.

A year later, feeling in a life stall, I quit my job of nearly nine years cold and went off to start working on a book I'd been planning for some time. Suddenly, everything and anything seemed possible, and "The Enemy Within" came ringing back in my ears: "I'm not giving in to security under pressure; I'm not missing out on the promise of adventure; I'm not giving up on improbable dreams. Experience to extremes. Experience to extremes." I was living it and loving it.

In 2004, while I was working the greatest job of my life--I was like Crash Davis, going to the ballpark every day and getting paid to do it as an official scorer in the International League--I heard "Between the Wheels." Another freight train. It became the song of the fall of 2004 when the logical end of my career free fall was rapidly approaching--with me financially splattered all over the sidewalk--but a door suddenly opened in Chicago. Anything and everything.

I needed no more than that to push Grace Under Pressure back into my good graces. But why not have more? The unexpected rolling out of "The Body Electric" on the Clockwork Angels Tour reminded me that, oh yeah, that's pretty cool song, too, with its catchy beat and nonsensical chorus. (Psst: It's not really JUST about androids.) Heck, if they break out "Kid Gloves" this time, I'll probably love that, too.

So I didn't connect with it when I was 20. What the heck did I know about, really, anything then? Consider Grace Under Pressure fully rehabilitated.
Your countdown so far:

No. 15: Fly by Night (Dave) and Counterparts (Will)

No. 16: Vapor Trails (Both of us)