Sunday, February 24, 2008

My new column for Country Standard Time Magazine


When I was growing up listening to the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Eagles and the Allman Brothers, I had no idea that this thing we called “Southern Rock” would morph into “Country Rock” and eventually become what we today know as Country Music. But it’s true. If you turn on your radio right now what you’ll hear on the country station has a lot more in common with the Flying Burrito Brothers and Marshall Tucker than it does with Luke the Drifter and the Singing Brakeman.
So, being an amateur musical historian (emphasis on the word “amateur”), I started wondering: who invented country rock? Now that Hank and Jimmie have been displaced, who are the real fathers (or mothers) of modern country music?
I always assumed it was Skynyrd and those aforementioned artists until I discovered Gram Parsons. Parsons died in 1973, but he was so far ahead of his time I’m not sure his time has arrived yet. Even though he called what he did “Cosmic American Music” I was perfectly willing to crown him the creator of modern country music. Even after Dan Fogelberg told me he thought Poco deserved the credit, and after I realized that the Byrds and the Band and Creedence Clearwater Revival might also be considered legitimate contenders for the honor, even after I saw that Wikipedia credited Buffalo Springfield and Gene Clark, I still stuck with Parsons.
Until I heard a song the other day on XM Channel 12, the Americana or Alt-Country station. Usually the stuff they play is pretty cutting-edge, but the other day they played something by the band that I now realize probably deserves the credit for creating country rock – The Lovin’ Spoonful.
That’s right, The Lovin’ Spoonful. I’d never really paid much attention to John Sebastian and the guys. (I was more into Herman’s Hermits and Paul Revere and the Raiders back then.) All I knew about this quartet was the somewhat unsavory story behind the band’s name (also the inspiration behind 10CC and Pearl Jam, more than that I cannot say in a family magazine) and that they did the best song ever about my favorite season “Summer in the City,” along with a few other catchy folksy tunes like “Daydream” and “Do You Believe in Magic”.
What I should have known but didn’t is that in the mid 60’s before anybody else they married country with rock and came up with such great tunes as “Nashville Cats” and “Darling Companion,” (the latter covered by Johnny Cash, among others.) Take a listen to these and understand why I consider them the pioneers of modern country music.
The Spoonful was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. And I am going to crusade for their inclusion in the Country Music Hall of Fame as well.
Unless anyone can prove to me that somebody was doing country-rock before that.
(I did say I was an amateur, remember.)

Saturday, February 23, 2008

More books I've read in 2008

Back in 2000, Michael Chabon published a book called "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay." Ostensibly it was about two Jewish boys who create a comic-book superhero called The Escapist, but it's really about much much more -- art and magic, war, Jewish mysticism, love and prejudice, and the history of the American 20th century. The book won the Pulitzer prize for fiction and it deserved it.
Shortly thereafter, the Escapist appeared in a series of comic books published by Dark Horse. Some of the great comic creators worked on this anthology series -- Will Eisner's final Spirit story appeared in The Amazing Adventures of The Escapist #6. Now in Brian K. Vaughn's "The Escapists" a young man buys the rights to the character of The Escapist (who hasn't appeared in comics for several years) and puts out a new comic book with the help of a couple of friends. They don't have any money to promote the comic so they come up with a publicity stunt that doesn't turn out the way they had it planned. Although it does result in publicity for the book it has other unintended consequences as well. One thing that happens is the evil Omnigrip corporation wants to win back the rights to the character now that it's been proven he can be a success again. You kinda get the feeling early on that this book cannot end happily and it doesn't, but it does end hopefully. And maybe that's even better. In addition to the subjects of love, freedom and escapism, this book also dealt with the oddities of Cleveland architecture.

I also read the second collection of Jack of Fables. Jack AKA The Giant Killer, the Beanstalk Boy and so on is an irredeemable rogue, but you gotta love him. In this book he takes advantage of the Snow Queen and briefly becomes Jack Frost and he heads to Las Vegas where he has the misfortune to run into Lady Luck.

These books present something of a challenge as far as book organization goes. People throw the term "graphic novel" around a lot, but I don't consider five or six issues of an ongoing series bound together as a novel, so "Jack of Hearts" is classified as "comic books DC". "The Escapists" on the other hand will be shelved with graphic novels. Yeah, it's six issues of a comic book bound together, but it was not an ongoing series. Like a novel, it has a beginning, a middle and a definite end.


It feels weird not to be gearing up for the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, which starts in 6 days. I had a great time there last year and I fully expected it to become an annual tradition. But due to my daughter's upcoming nuptials and other financial considerations I am reluctantly forced to sit this one out. Good luck to everyone participating this year, but beware: I will be back in '09.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

More books I've read in 2008

"Ant Farm and Other Desperate Situations". I heard Simon Rich on one of my new favorite podcasts "The Sound of Young America" (Luckily they allow old America to listen too.) He read a couple pieces from the book, made me laugh, so I picked up his book. The short pieces that make up this short book are mostly pretty funny, only a few fell flat. My favorites were the ones about Abraham and Isaac and the ride back from Beersheba where dad almost sacrificed Junior, and the one about what happens when my parents aren't home, from my parents' point of view. Simon does seem to have some parental issues, perhaps not so suprising when you consider that his father is Frank Rich of the New York Times.

I've already confessed to spending a lot of time wallowing in nostalgia, but you may not know that a lot of the time I'm nostalgic for a time before my time. I'm obsessed with the 1920's and would love to have lived back in the golden age of the short story, bathtub gin, jazz and flappers. I also miss the days when baseball was absolutely the only game that mattered, so you know I enjoyed this book the years when the Dodgers and the Giants fought each other every Summer for the privilege of going to the World Series and having their butts kicked by the Yankees and about the year 1955 when the Dodgers -- "dem bums" to their crazy-loyal fans -- finally did the impossible and sent the GD Yankees home ringless for once.

More books I

Friday, February 15, 2008


This is kind of unusual. The New York Times almost always has the best obituaries, but I've read both and I think for Steve Gerber, the LA Times actually did a better job. For one thing they included this anecdote (referring to the fact that Howard the Duck (like most prophets) was not universally beloved:)

One disgruntled reader wrote to Gerber blasting the character as a "pseudo-sexual, liberal, pseudo-intellectual premise obviously written by an oversexed manic depressive."
Gerber called it "my favorite fan letter."

Which pretty much encapsulates what I loved about the guy.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Valentine's day lament

I am nobody's hero.
Which is all right, I guess. How many of us can honestly say we're somebody's hero? (Put your hand down, Roger Clemens.) But it's a little embarrassing since I'm married to Kim Loy, who is everybody's hero.
My oldest son Zan lists as his heroes on his MySpace page: "Green Lantern, Kim Loy". Even his girlfriend lists as her heroes: "Jesus, Grandpa Stinson, Kim Loy."
My oldest daughter has only one hero according to her MySpace page. Can you guess?: "My Mom" (AKA Kim Loy)
My youngest daughter doesn't just name her hero, she elaborates on exactly what qualities make Kim Loy her hero: "My Mom is my all time Hero. She is always there for me..and I love her more than anything."
My youngest son doesn't list any heroes, but if he did I'm sure that Kim Loy would be way up there.
Like I said, I'm fine with it. I don't list any heroes on my MySpace page here. Mainly because I don't want Kim to get a swelled head -- easy to do when you are up there with Jesus and the Green Lantern. Yeah, she's my hero too.
Happy Valentine's Day, my Love.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

More on Gerber

Heidi MacDonald has a great piece on Steve Gerber and how he changed comics.

Farewell to a writing idol

Conventional wisdom says that boys give up comic books as soon as they discover girls. That I did not do so is due primarily to the efforts of one man -- Steve Gerber. Granted, the fact that girls had not yet discovered me had something to do with it, but mostly it was because when I finally tired of the purple prose of Stan Lee (prose that I venerate to this day but purple nonetheless) and others that followed in his footsteps, I picked up Howard the Duck #1 and was blown even further away than I had been when I picked up fantastic Four Annual #6 many moons previously. Gerber was cynical, sarcastic and a master of satire -- all things that the teenage me respected and aspired to. And Howard of Duckworld was not a hero and the few times he was required to act heroically it was reluctantly at best. Gerber also wrote "The Defenders" and "Omega the Unknown" and a ton of other comics for Marvel at that time and all of them were completely different than anything else on the stands at that time. By then there were artists that I recognized immediately upon seeing their work, but Gerber was the first writer that I could always pick out of a lineup of comics. No other characters spoke like Gerber characters, and his plotlines were off the wall, bizarre but in a way that never failed to reach me -- make me laugh or make me think, all things that more mainstream comics had lost the power to do.
As you can probably already sense, this story does not have a happy ending. Marvel fired Gerber, he later sued them to try to win the rights for the character that he loved so much. He lost the suit, Howard the Duck was made into one of the worst movies ever made, Gerber went on to write many more comics, some of them great, some of them too dark for my tastes, but always high quality. He never phoned it in. Like a lot of cynics he had a furious work ethic.
Fellow comics scribe Mark Evanier has written a much better obituary of Gerber than I could ever hope to do, and I urge you to read it here. I just wanted to say thank you and goodbye to a man who amused and inspired me.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

What's on my I-Pod

I got an I-Pod for my 50th birthday a few weeks ago and I love it. It has really made the walking part of my exercise regime much more enjoyable. The problem is that I'm having a hard time finding music to go on it. I've been sort of out-of-touch with the pop and rock worlds recently, and a lot of alt-country doesn't lend inspire one to keep on legging it. I like something with a fast interesting rhythm and a positive theme. Some of the songs that stay near the top every time I rearrange my "Walking" playlist are "Centerfield" by John Fogerty, "Never Been Any Reason" from Head East, the Who's "Goin' Mobile," and "Go All the Way" from the Raspberries. All old stuff; there's only a handful of recent songs on there. I like "Everyone's in Love" by Will Kimbrough and "The Ballad of Barry Allen" from Jim's Big Ego -- Barry Allen by the way was the Flash, patron saint of walkers, joggers and runners -- and I've got some Green Day on there too, but that's about it. The problem is I don't know what's out there, and 30 second samples on I-Tunes can be misleading. One thing I do is always download the free songs of the week, even though I usually end up deleting them. I like the one this week though and I'll probably end up keeping it even though it makes me feel very old. The song is "Check Yes, Juliet" from a band called We The Kings.
Here are the lyrics:

Check yes juliet
are you with me
rain is falling down on the sidewalk
i won't go until you come outside
check yes juliet
kill the limbo
i'll keep tossing rocks at your window
cause there's no turning back for us tonight

lace up your shoes
A O A O ah
here's how we do

run baby run
don't ever look back
they'll tear us apart
if you give them the chance
don't sell your heart
don't say we're not meant to be
run baby run
forever will be
you and me

check yes juliet
i'll be waiting
wishing, wanting
yours for the taking
just sneak out
and don't tell a soul goodbye
check yes juliet
here's the countdown
3...2...1... now fall in my arms
now they can change the locks
don't let them change your mind

lace up your shoes
A O A O ah
here's how we do

run baby run
don't ever look back
they'll tear us apart
if you give them the chance
don't sell your heart
don't say we're not meant to be
run baby run
forever will be
you and me

we're flying through the night
flying through the night
way up high,
the view from here is getting better with
you by my side

run baby run
don't ever look back
they'll tear us apart
if you give them the chance
don't sell your heart
don't say we're not meant to be
run baby run
forever will be
you and me

Sounds like something that would be right up my alley, not only is it romantic as all get out, but the singer keeps referencing running and flying. The problem is I'm a parent. If I'd heard this song when I was 15 it would have been one of my favorites, no doubt; I'd probably still be listening to it 35 years later as with the thematically-similar "Go All the Way", but now I empathize with Mr. and Mrs. Capulet, or whatever this Juliet's parents are named. They're not trying to tear y'all apart, young man. They're concerned about their daughter's future, and they don't want her running off with a guy in a rock band. At least not yet. If y'all are "meant to be" you'll still be in a few years after Juliet finishes her education.
Yeah, I know, I smell it too. The unmistakable aroma of old fart.

More books I've read in 2008

One of my favorite zines from way back in the 1990's was Dishwasher, the continuing saga of an amiable but aimless young man attempting to get a job as a dishwasher in all 50 states. It ran 15 issues and was always well-written and attractively designed, which couldn't have been easy considering Dishwasher Pete was putting it together while on the road, sleeping on friends' couches and (usually surreptitiously) visiting copy shops when he wasn't shoulder-deep in suds.
He disappeared in the late 90's and occasionally I'd Google "Dishwasher Pete" just to see if there was any news about him or if Dishwasher #16 was finally out. But the hits were always old ones -- Dishwasher Pete on PRI's "This American Life" or the story of how he scammed David Letterman by having a buddy pretend to be Dishwasher Pete on that show.
Well, Dishwasher Pete is back. He's living in Amsterdam, working as a bicycle mechanic and he's written a very entertaining book about his days dish-dogging everywhere from hippie communes to trains to resorts to oil rigs. (Some review blurbs have compared this book to "On the Road" but if you're like me and Truman Capote, and you think Jack Kerouac's writing was just typing, don't worry ""Dishwasher" is a lot better than that.)
Check out Dishwasher Pete's website and see him on the Letterman show (for real this time).

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Happy Birthday, Chuck

I got an e-mail today from a Green Genius reader who wanted to know the identity of that handsome young scribe immediately to your right. The reason why she didn't recognize him was because we're used to seeing him balding and bearded like so:

Yep, it's the great Charles Dickens. And if Bill Shakespeare was a better writer, then he's the only one. I can't remember the names or anything else about the characters in the novel I read last month, but I can never forget Uriah Heep, Steerforth, Peggotty and Mr. Peggotty, Ham, the Murdstones, Aunt Betsey Trotwood, Little Em'ly, Mr. Dick, Mrs. Gummidge (that "lone, lorn creetur") and of course, Wilkins Micawber -- and those are all from just one of Dickens's books.
By what I consider an odd coincidence the question about this writer was sent on Dickens's birthday. He was born on February 7th, 1812, so today is his 195th birthday -- or, it would have been his 195th birthday if he had taken better care of himself.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

In other musical news

Mark your calendars. March 25th 2008 is the day the new B--52s CD will be released.


Pretty much everybody who knows me knows how much I love the song "Hang on, Sloopy" by the McCoys -- and to those of you in a position (so to speak) to make me a grandfather, the offer still stands, I'll pay to send any granddaughter of mine named Sloopy to college for four years.
I keep learning more about this song. Awhile back I downloaded it from I-Tunes, and I was surprised to hear a verse I'd never heard before -- a second verse that was evidently cut from the single version. It goes like this:
Sloopy wears a red dress, yeah
As old as the hills
but when Sloopy wears that red dress, yeah
you know it gives me the chills

Sloopy when I see you walking,
walking down the street
I say don't worry Sloopy, girl
You belong to me

and so I sing out

Hang on Sloopy . . .

Now thanks to my friend Wendy and her musically-mesmerizing blog "I Estivate, Therefore I am" I've learned something else about the McCoys'big hit. It is the official state rock song of Ohio. How cool is that?
You can read all about it here, but this is is the resolution that made it so:


WHEREAS, The members of the 116th General Assembly of Ohio wish to
recognize the rock song "Hang On Sloopy" as the official rock song of the great State of Ohio; and

WHEREAS, In 1965, an Ohio-based rock group known as the McCoys reached the top of the national record charts with "Hang On Sloopy," composed by Bert Russell and Wes Farrell, and that same year, John Tagenhorst, then an arranger for the Ohio State University Marching Band, created the band's now-famous arrangement of "Sloopy," first performed at the Ohio State-Illinois football game on October 9, 1965; and

WHEREAS, Rock music has become an integral part of American culture, having attained a degree of acceptance no one would have thought possible twenty years ago; and

WHEREAS, Adoption of "Hang On Sloopy" as the official rock song of Ohio is in no way intended to supplant "Beautiful Ohio" as the official state song, but would serve as a companion piece to that old chestnut; and

WHEREAS, If fans of jazz, country-and-western, classical, Hawaiian and polka music think those styles also should be recognized by the state, then by golly, they can push their own resolution just like we're doing; and

WHEREAS, "Hang On Sloopy" is of particular relevance to members of the Baby Boom Generation, who were once dismissed as a bunch of long-haired, crazy kids, but who now are old enough and vote in sufficient numbers to be taken quite seriously; and

WHEREAS, Adoption of this resolution will not take too long, cost the state anything, or affect the quality of life in this state to any appreciable degree, and if we in the legislature just go ahead and pass the darn thing, we can get on with more important stuff; and

WHEREAS, Sloopy lives in a very bad part of town, and everybody, yeah, tries to put my Sloopy down; and

WHEREAS, Sloopy, I don't care what your daddy do, 'cause you know, Sloopy girl, I'm in love with you; therefore be it Resolved, That we, the members of the 116th General Assembly of Ohio, in adopting this Resolution, name "Hang On Sloopy" as the official rock song of the State of Ohio; and be it further Resolved, That the Legislative Clerk of the House of Representatives transmit duly authenticated copies of this Resolution to the news media of Ohio.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Sunday Puzzles

For at least the last 15 years I have been solving the NPR Weekend Edition Sunday Puzzles, trying for my chance to go head-to-head on the air with the puzzlemaster himself, Will Shortz. So far I haven't been called. I wonder if the reason they didn't call last week was because they rejected my answer.
Tell me what you think.
The challenge was:
Take the three bird names egret, crane and owl. Rearrange the 13 letters to spell three other bird names. They are all common names. What are they?

And the answer that Will gave this morning was "eagle, crow and tern."

But the answer I came up with was "Eaglet, wren and roc."

Now, before you say, "Come on, Rob! Roc? That's not a real bird. That's some mythological winged creature from "Sinbad" and "1,001 Nights," let me point out that the instructions don't say it has to be a real bird. It doesn't even say it has to be a common bird -- a common word, yes, but not a common bird. And if you've ever done any crossword puzzles you know that "roc" is a pretty common word.
Sometimes when listeners submit an acceptable alternate answer, Will will say something to that effect on the air, but he didn't do that this week. Which makes me wonder if my answers were unacceptable and if so, why.

Where have all the RomComs gone?

My favorite movie genre is Romantic Comedy -- favorite TV and literature genre too. The first date my wife and I went on was to see the movie "Benny and Joon," and I told her then that there were only three types of movies I watched -- romances, comedies and romantic comedies. (Trying to make it sound like I was more well-rounded than I actually was.)
It's been a while since I've seen a really good one though. I guess the last one that really got to me was "Just Like Heaven." And that was probably mainly due to the fact that Reese Witherspoon -- the finest actress of her generation -- was in it and she's so good she lifted her co-star Mark Ruffalo and the script up to her level. That's probably part of the reason there aren't more really good RomComs these days. With the exception of Reese, we don't have any actresses good enough to follow in the footsteps of Katherine Hepburn, Myrna (no kin) Loy and Claudette Colbert, and no actors worthy to wear the crown borne by William Powell, Cary Grant and Spencer Tracy.
There are other reasons too. And I think A.O. Scott sums it up pretty well in this article from the New York Times.
I have to quote this one paragraph, but you should really go and read the whole article.

"(T)he movies made under the old taboos of the Production Code are far more sophisticated, and far less timid, than what we see today. The standard PG-13 romantic comedy nowadays treads so delicately in fear of giving offense to someone somewhere that it wonders into blandness and boredom. Its naughty R-rated sibling, meanwhile, will frequently wallow in coarseness at the expense of subtlety or wit, mistaking grossness for honesty."