Saturday, May 18, 2019

My take on Best Of music rankings and lists that may perplex you

Do you get a kick out of reading music’s top 10 and “best of” lists each year? I always have, and sometimes I’ve strongly disagreed with which album or song had been named the best of the year. So I’ve put together a few write-ups and lists that may surprise you, or get you wondering why I’d even make a list on that topic. Hey, I love making lists!

They are in no particular order, and you may wonder why it goes from best new artists and songs to my favorite recording by post-Beatles Beatles gone solo, and other strange lists — such as my favorite country rock songs, and defining high school songs for me and my classmates. And while it may seem overly lengthy, this post consolidates pieces that I’d been tapping away at over the past half year or so. Some of them are merely lists, but I do love making lists!

Pop star of the day has tied the Beatles for three top hits in a row
Ariana Grande, turning 26 in June, has officially become a superstar with the most top hit singles
since the Beatles. In February, the techno-dance hip hop diva took Billboard’s top three singles with “7 Rings,” "Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I'm Bored,” and "Thank U, Next.” That was nearly 55 years after the Beatles held the top three with “Can't Buy Me Love," "Twist and Shout," and "Do You Want to Know a Secret.”

She’s not the only young pop music icon star of the day. That list would also need to include Drake, Camila Cabello, Shawn Mendes, Kendrick Lamar, Post Malone, Cardi B, Ed Sheeran, and a few others. But she’s risen to a level that isn’t reached very often. Another piece of evidence that Grande is a superstar — getting paid $8 million to be the main act at this year’s Coachella Music Festival. Legendary singer Beyonce Knowles is said to have been paid $4 million last year to headline the Coachella festival.

How did she get here? The former TV star broke into singing in the mid-2010s to follow in the footsteps of mentors like Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, able to belt out her own emotional ballads with a falsetto voice. At first, Grande’s voice can sound a bit glossed over using the typical engineering style of pop music vocal recordings these days. But then it grows on you, and her voice quickly becomes immediately recognizable.

Critical acclaim is there for her, too. ”Thank U, Next” made Top 5 best song rankings for 2018 from Billboard and NPR. “God is a Woman” made Entertainment Weekly’s #8 for best songs; and her album “Sweetener” made #5 on Rolling Stone’s best albums of 2018. Winning a long list of awards, including a Grammy, has helped build her name in the music scene.

Comparisons to other diva superstars like Beyonce and Rihanna are obvious. But there are other influences such as Carey, Houston, Gwen Stefani, Lady Gaga, Madonna, and Toni Braxton. She has a similar level of charisma and star power that combine her singing talent with stage performance.

Speaking of Stefani, her 2004 “Rich Girl” hit was a redo of the song “If I Were a Rich Man,” from the classic musical, “Fiddler on the Roof.” Listen to Grande’s “7 Rings,” a revamp that comes from “My Favorite Things” on the “Sound of Music” soundtrack. She’s clearly been influenced by these performers, who’ve been able to cut their own paths through the pressure cooker of the music industry by sharing their own eccentricity, humor, talent, and personal style. Lots of well produced and entertaining videos help, too, as if she’d just starred in a short movie.

My favorite radio songs of the 2000s
(in no particular order)
“1901” — Phoenix — 2009
“It’s Time” — Imagine Dragons — 2012
“Dare” — Gorillaz — 2005
“Rock Your Body” — Justin Timberlake — 2002
“Soul Meets Body” — Death Cab for Cutie — 2005
“Walk” — Foo Fighters — 2011
“Firework” — Katy Perry — 2010
“Sirens” — Pearl Jam — 2013
“Dog Days Are Over” — Florence + the Machine — 2009
“Holiday” — Vampire Weekend — 2010
“The Joke” — Brandi Carlile — 2017
“Use Somebody” — Kings of Leon — 2008
“Boulevard of Broken Dreams” — Green Day — 2004
“Don’t Know Why” — Nora Jones — 2002
“Beautiful Day” — U2 — 2000
“Umbrella” — Rihanna feat. Jay-Z — 2007
“Hey Ya!” — Outkast — 2003
“Lose Yourself — Eminem — 2002
“Someone Like You” — Adele — 2011
“Born This Way” — Lady Gaga — 2011
“Get Lucky” — Daft Punk — 2013
“Happy” — Pharrell Williams — 2013
“Gold Digger — Kanye West feat. Jamie Foxx — 2005
“Crazy” — Gnarls Barkley — 2006
“99 Problems” — Jay-Z — 2004
“Crazy in Love” — Beyonce feat. Jay-Z — 2003

Unexpected and great rock anthems
“We Will Rock You” is likely what comes to mind when you first hear the topic of rock anthems brought up. Queen’s 1977 mega-hit, which was fused together by radio stations with its B-side “We Are The Champions,” quickly became the anthem of high school cheerleaders, beer-keg parties, and teenagers driving fast with radios blasting and windows open.

There are several other hits that many would consider classic rock anthems, but I’d like to take this theme in a different direction. What about anthems written around classic American themes like overcoming the odds, making it through tough times, and standing up for what you believe in? What would that list of songs look like?

I’ve got a list of songs that over the years helped me through tough times; and that can still make a difference. Life can be tough, no doubt, so finding inspiration and singing along can make for a better day. These are not hurrah marching songs, or something you’ll hear at weddings or on classic rock stations. They delve into some of the pain and struggle of life, and keeping hope alive during dark times.

Here’s a list of songs I love to hear, and a slice of their lyrics.

“Badlands” — Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
Springsteen is well known for other anthems like “Born to Run” and “Glory Days,” but this song is one I’m even more fond of. It’s the opening track on the 1978 album, “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” and begins with the E Street Band at their most powerful, with a great piano and guitar riff and dynamic drumming. It’s not a feel-good song, and it goes deep into the themes and messages that have defined his life-long songwriting about overcoming barriers and rising up.

Here’s a passage that stands out:

“Talk about a dream
Try to make it real
You wake up in the night
With a fear so real
Spend your life waiting
For a moment that just don't come
Well don't waste your time waiting

Badlands, you gotta live it every day
Let the broken hearts stand
As the price you've gotta pay
We'll keep pushin' till it's understood
And these badlands start treating us good”

“Everything Now” — Arcade Fire
This was the first big hit by the Canadian indie rock band that put out its first album in 2004. "Everything Now" made it to No. 1 on a Billboard chart and was the first single released from the album of the same name in 2017. Produced by Arcade Fire along with Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter and Pulp bassist Steve Mackey, it’s got a strong, melodic opening ripe for the dance floor and outside the band’s solemn sound on its first albums.

The lyrics nearly clash with the song’s cheerful melody led by a piano and backed by a thumping beat that could inspire a chorus of stage dancers. The lyrics cast an ominous glow, depicting a culture overtaken by information overload filling up “every inch of space in your head” with a lack of authenticity.

Lead singer Win Butler had this to say:

“Every inch of road's got a sign
And every boy uses the same line
I pledge allegiance to everything now
Every song that I've ever heard
Is playing at the same time, it's absurd
And it reminds me, we've got everything now
We turn the speakers up till they break
'Cause every time you smile it's a fake!”

“I Still Believe” — The Call
The Call was one of the best and least recognized bands of the 1980s, overshadowed on alternative, post-punk stations by the Replacements, REM, Husker Du, U2, and others. “The Walls Came Down,” was an anthem on these FM stations, and rock fans heard several more including “Everywhere I Go” and “Let the Day Begin.”

In 1986, the band had an FM radio hit that became an anthem for young people concerned about the culture of the day. That included the conservative Reagan administration, lifestyles of the rich and famous, the Yuppie career path in preppy outfits, and casualties in the cocaine- and alcohol-driven dance clubs and party lifestyle.

For music fans who wanted to support another path, the song presents a stark landscape for those seeking meaning and purpose and looking for the light — and its resonates in ‘80s synth-pop through electronic keyboards and guitars.

“But I still believe.
I still believe.
Through the shame,
And through the grief.
Through the heartache,
Through the tears,
Through the waiting,
Through the years

For people like us,
In places like this
We need all the hope,
That we can get,
Oh, I still believe!”

“Refugee” — Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers
Tom Petty’s death in October 2017 was shocking for many of us. He seemed like someone who would never really go away, with his music being deeply embedded into American radio. When was the last time you’ve heard, “Free Fallin’,” “American Girl,” or “Mary Jane’s Last Dance”?

And what about “Refugee?” That song was prominent on the great 1979 album from Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, titled “Damn the Torpedoes.” You’ve probably heard “Even the Losers,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Here Comes My Girl,” and “Century City”. Yes, it was a great album, and it all began with a great song on side one, “Refugee”.

“Refugee” was performed by great musicians who played perfectly together. You’ll hear Benmont Tench soaring on the organ, Mike Campbell’s powerful lead guitar, rhythm carried by Stan Lynch on drums and Ron Blair on bass, and Petty on rhythm guitar and lead vocals (with backing vocals from Tench and Lynch).  It was co-written by Petty and Campbell.

“You don’t have to live like a refugee,” Petty sang during a time when he battled with ABC Records for trying to sell the band’s contract to MCA Records without the band knowing about it. It was also written during a time when international news coverage regularly included stories about refugees fleeing their countries to save their lives; such as the Vietnamese “boat people” taking great risks to leave their country and which was still transpiring when the album was released.

Was this song about a relationship Petty was in? Who knows, but it was about rising up beyond struggles and desperation. It sends out the age-old message of fighting for freedom.

“Somewhere, somehow, somebody
Must have kicked you around some
Who knows, maybe you were kidnapped
Tied up, taken away, and held for ransom
Honey, it don't really matter to me, baby
Everybody's had to fight to be free”

“Stand!” — Sly and the Family Stone
Sly and the Family Stone represented both the brightest and darkest moments of late-1960s and early-1970s American youth culture and social change. The band produced a series of great hit singles starting in 1968 that embodied the adventure, self actualization, and social statements of that era. They were the first hit-hit-making band that was racially integrated and led by men and women. It wouldn’t last very long, with drug problems and internal clashes destroying the band by 1975.

But when they made records together, they were great. They made you want to dance and sing along. Their “psychedelic soul” had a huge influence on funk, pop, soul, R&B, and hip hop music. You can hear it songs by Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Prince, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and many other artists.

One of my favorites is the anthem “Stand!” It all starts out with a drum roll and the singers belting out “Stand” as the chorus in between stanzas sung mostly by Sly Stone.  It does have an unusual twist, shifting over to a gospel break for its final 45 seconds. It calls for listens to stand up for themselves, their communities, and what they really believe in.

“They will try to make you crawl
And they know what you're saying makes sense and all
Don't you know that you are free
Well at least in your mind if you want to be
Stand! Stand!”

“American Tune” — Paul Simon
For those of you wanting to hear an inspiring, uplifting anthem, you’d better find something different than this one. Let’s start with a passage from the lyrics……..

“And I don't know a soul who's not been battered
I don't have a friend who feels at ease
I don't know a dream that's not been shattered
or driven to its knees
But it's all right, it's all right
We've lived so well so long
Still, when I think of the road
we're traveling on
I wonder what went wrong
I can't help it, I wonder what went wrong”

I had a friend riding in my car with me a few years ago and I played him this song. He asked me to play it again right after. It struck a chord — not something to dance to, but we could very much understand what he was talking about.

The song’s title had something to do with Simon’s experience being an American in the early 1970s. The country had been undergoing historic change. Although it was cool and hip for rock stars, they like everybody else, were living through a tumultuous period of change, writing a new chapter in our history. Simon and everybody else had to live through it. He had this to say about it:

“We come on the ship they call the Mayflower
We come on the ship that sailed the moon
We come in the age's most uncertain hour
and sing an American tune
But it's all right, it's all right
You can't be forever blessed
Still, tomorrow's going to be another working day
And I'm trying to get some rest
That's all I'm trying to get some rest”

“Chicago” — Sufjan Stevens
The song is as grand and shimmering as the Arcade Fire’s “Everything Now”; at least the album version of Steven’s song is, on his Illinoise album. He’s been getting some Pandora radio play from a softer, more acoustic version. I’ll take the grand and shimmering version with the backup choral singers.

Stevens is a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist known for creating his own style and sound. He gained wide recognition for his previously mentioned album, which hit number one on the Billboard Top Heatseekers chart (that tracks up and coming musicians), and for the single "Chicago" from that album.

In the song, Sufjan and his friend go for a road trip, where his inner world is disrupted by reality. It was time to let it go, to be born again. Here’s a little bit of his song……

“I was in love with the place
In my mind, in my mind
I made a lot of mistakes
In my mind, in my mind

You came to take us
All things go, all things go
To recreate us
All things grow, all things grow”

Top 10 songs by former members of the Beatles
“Junior's Farm,” and “Jet” by Paul McCartney & Wings — McCartney has been condemned for schmaltzing up the Beatles, and later the Wings, too much with love ballads (think “Yesterday”), but he and the Wings could really rock. That included his then-wife Linda McCartney, who co-wrote “Junior’s Farm” with Paul, year’s before her tragic death by cancer. The musicianship and recording production is very tight on the songs released in 1974 and 1973, respectively. While great production was something George Martin was credited for with the Beatles, McCartney had a lot to do with it on the Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Abbey Road albums; and you can hear more of it on these two recordings.

“Mother” by John Lennon — This was released on his 1970 solo album Plastic One Band, and came out of therapy he’d done about his childhood trauma. It’s brutal and it well represents Lennon’s authentic experience as an artist; and his abandonment as a child by a father who left when he was an infant and his mother who was hit and killed by a drunk driver when he was 17. The song starts with a funeral bell tolling slowly four times and plays with simple and stark musicianship. The song ends with Lennon singing "Mama don't go, daddy come home,” and then screeching the words and screaming as the song fades out.

“Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)” — George Harrison — This song does a good job of summing up Harrison’s spiritual journey that started while still in the Beatles. Released as the opening track of his 1973 album Living in the Material World, it became Harrison's second US number 1, after "My Sweet Lord.” This was during the time in his life he’d dedicated himself to assisting refugees from Bangladesh, leading two all-star benefit concerts in 1971 and 1972. You can hear the grief and sadness in his voice.

“It Don’t Come Easy” — Ringo Starr — This 1971 hit was one of several by Starr; this one was credited to him but had been written by Starr and Harrison. It’s a good one for Starr (Richard Starkey) whose parents had split up when he was four, and he never saw much of his father after that. His mother worked as a cleaning woman and then a barmaid to support them. “Got to pay your dues if you wanna sing the blues.
And you know it don't come easy,” he sings.

“Live and Let Die” — Paul McCartney & Wings. I suspect this soundtrack tune for the James Bond movie didn’t go well with other ex-Beatles, especially John Lennon. But it sticks with you, enough for Guns N’ Roses to have done a cover version. It taps into the grandiose orchestral sound of other Bond anthems, but it just has that hook that reels you in. It’s thought to have changed the game for Bond movie title tracks, with rock artists like Duran Duran, Chris Cornell, Madonna, and Sheryl Crow later doing recordings.

And four more…….
“Blow Away” — George Harrison — 1979
“Instant Karma”  — John Lennon — 1970
“Another Day” — Paul McCartney — 1971
“Watching the Wheels” — John Lennon — 1980

Songs to burn onto your playlist for a really good long drive:
(Feel free to look them up on Youtube)
“Everybody’s Talkin’” — Harry Nilsson
“Well Alright” — Buddy Holly and the Crickets
“Witchita Lineman” — Glen Campbell
“Street Fightin’ Man” — Rolling Stones
“Sirens” — Pearl Jam
“Everybody is a Star” — Sly & the Family Stone
“Hey Jude” — The Beatles
“Waterloo Sunset” — the Kinks
“Tunnel of Love” — Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band
“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” — Bob Dylan
“Talk of the Town” — the Pretenders
“Sunset People” — Donna Summer
“Wishing Well” — Terence Trent D’Arby
“Kiss” — Prince
“That’s Alright Mama” — Elvis Presley
“Walkin’ After Midnight” — Patsy Cline
“Boogie on Reggae Woman” — Stevie Wonder
“Ray of Light” — Madonna
“Jackie Wilson Said” — Van Morrison
“The Kids Are Alright” — The Who
“Blue Spark” — X
“Ole Man Trouble” — Otis Redding
“White Lines” — Grandmaster Flash
“Bring the Noise” — Public Enemy
“Time After Time” — Cindy Lauper
“The Pretender” — Jackson Browne
“Somebody To Love” — Queen
“Nobody’s Fault But Mine” — Led Zeppelin
“Help Me” — Joni Mitchell
“Someone Saved My Life Tonight” — Elton John
“Superman” — R.E.M.

Best Albums of the 1980s that you may not have heard
Artists United Against Apartheid — Sun City
REM — Murmur
The Replacements — Tim
Husker Du — Candy Apple Grey
David Lindley — Win This Record
Talking Heads — Speaking in Tongues
Richard and Linda Thompson — Shoot Out the Lights
X — Los Angeles
VU — Velvet Underground (recorded in the ‘60s and finally released by the ‘80s)
Public Enemy — Bring the Noise
Los Lobos — By the Light of the Moon
Nebraska — Bruce Springsteen
Prince albums, songs, and videos

My 12 favorite albums
Layla — Derek & The Dominos
Darkness on the Edge of Town — Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band
Beggar’s Banquet — The Rolling Stones
Heat Treatment — Graham Parker and The Rumour
Bring the Family — John Hiatt
The Clash — The Clash (1977 — British version)
Tommy — The Who
Los Angeles — X
OK Computer — Radiohead
Blonde on Blonde — Bob Dylan
Revolver — The Beatles (British version)
The Doors — The Doors

My favorite country rock songs:
(in no particular order)
Johnny Cash — “Sunday Morning Coming Down”
Steve Earle — “Feel Alright”
Jimmie Dale Gilmore — “Where You Going”
Lyle Lovett — “If I Had a Boat”
The Flying Burrito Brothers — “Cody Cody,” and “Wheels”
Willie Nelson — “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys”
Linda Ronstadt — “Blue Bayou”
Dolly Parton — “Jolene”
Lucinda Williams — “Right in Time”
Hank Williams — “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”
Bob Dylan — “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”
Joe Ely — “She Never Spoke Spanish To Me”
Garth Brooks — “Rodeo”
Roseanne Cash — “Seven Year Ache”
Lynyrd Skynyrd — “You Got That Right”
The Byrds — “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”

Defining high school songs for me and my classmates
“The Groove Line” — Heatwave
“My Sharona” — The Knack
“Cars” — Gary Numan
“How Deep Is Your Love” — Bee Gees
“We Will Rock You” and “We Are The Champions” — Queen
“Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” — Michael Jackson
“Pop Muzik” — M
“Bette Davis Eyes” — Kim Carnes
“Jessie’s Girl” — Rick Springfield
“Heart of Glass” — Blondie
“Come Sail Away” — Styx
“Back in Love Again” — LTD
“You Better Run” — Pink Floyd

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Ever heard of Green Auto Market?

For those of you interested in lively topics such as:

  • The latest on Elon Musk and his struggling company that makes possibly the best electric cars on roads, the Tesla series.
  • Lyft and Uber have gone public after revolutionizing the ride-hailing business, but failing to get people excited about buying their stock.
  • Greenhouse gas and C02 emissions are a big deal with governments around the world, including one where the Trump administration has been derailing what used to be the leading nation for electric vehicles and clean transportation.
  • What’s clicking with fleets and vehicle makers at ACT Expo and other big clean transportation/mobility conferences.
  • When, oh when, will autonomous vehicles go from road testing to becoming common on public roads?
  • Plus, a whole series of news briefs and analysis on alternative fuels, incentives, vehicle sales, government regs, capital investments, consumer attitudes about the technology, and more.

Written by blogger Jon LeSage, Green Auto Market covers other topics than rock music, pragmatic beliefs, near-death experiences, and what it’s like to be a rock music critic.
Just visit the website to review some of the recent and older issues, and to sign up for the free subscription email distribution list.
And don’t forget to sign up for announcements on new posts coming out on this blog — see the box to the right.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Why I’m a pragmatist, and why you’re one too

My favorite school of American philosophy, pragmatism, was based on what I see as a few simple questions: Does it work for me? Do I buy into it? What’s in it for me?

No matter what we’re passionately preaching about to our peers — politics, cool technology, religious and spiritual beliefs, societal trends, favorite artists and sports teams, or other interests, our opinions seem to be driven by something deep inside: our essential needs and wants. What do I really care about? How will it affect me and my loved ones? Is it more positive than negative?

Grand doctrines, or big ideas, essentially boil down to my first questions on what we’re likely to get out of accepting them. I’m suggesting we’re all driven by our core, deep self interests. It may be considered egocentric and self absorbed, but it usually drives positive, constructive action from me and my fellow humans.

Pragmatism was the dominant school of philosophy in the U.S. during the first quarter of the 20th century. It’s influence was seen in the fields of law, education, political and social theory, art, and religion. In essence, it was about changing old patterns of thinking and finding new and practical ways to achieve desires in life.

The intellectual movement, led by William James, John Dewey, and Charles Sanders Peirce, had papers and books published written in a tedious, academic style of the day. But in the end, it helped free thinkers set aside old, heavy, dark “truths” that got in the way of finding one’s authentic inner experience  and meaning — about what intuitively and deeply makes sense to each individual thinker.

The founders were not attempting to unravel prior schools of thought — concepts, language, religions, and science — but they contended these theories were best perceived and learned in terms of their practical uses and successes.

William James, brother of renowned novelist Henry James, was an American philosopher, psychologist, and educator who lived from 1842 until 1910. If you’d taken a philosophy class in college, you probably read some of James’ writings. Regardless of the social environment that you came from, you can exercise some control over your thinking and attitudes, he said.

“The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes,” James said.

And there were other telling quotes from James: “Pessimism leads to weakness, optimism to power…….. Acceptance of what has happened is the first step to overcoming the consequences of any misfortune.”

Pragmatism was a pivotal concept in the home I was raised in. My parents came from families led by alcoholic fathers, which could at times be turbulent and unpredictable. They’d also come of age during the Great Depression and became a couple during World War II. My father served in the European theater, while my mother worked and waited for him to come home to the Army Air Corp base in Greenville, S.C.

They’d survived tough times, and taught us to look for opportunities to keep our lives as stable and good as possible.

I have a few vivid memories showing me how pragmatic thinking can work, going way back to childhood.

As I finished the 6th grade, I got into a lot of trouble. Me and another boy had written obscenities in two girls’ yearbooks right before the last day of the school year, almost like graffiti on a wall. We got caught sneaking the yearbooks back to their desks, and had our mothers called about it.

For the girl whose yearbook I’d chosen to briefly kidnap for writing what I thought to be hilarious nasty words and insults, my parents wanted me to be accountable. My mother drove me to the girl’s house with a new and clean yearbook. I had to hand that restitution over to my classmate in front of her family, and apologize to her. It was quite humbling.

When we got home, I went to see my father, who was working in the garage. He listened and nodded his head as I told him about the humbling experience. While Mom had been upset with me, Dad was fairly calm and logical. He told me that it wasn’t a good idea to do what I’d done. What if, during college years, I’d wanted to ask that girl out on a date? But I’d ruined it at the end of 6th grade by spoiling her yearbook.

Yes, I told him, I understood. I began getting the subliminal message, “Don’t do stupid things.”

Another incident years later also stuck with me. My father was an engineer with the LA Fire Department. During many of his days off, he earned extra income working as a carpenter on home cabinet building and installation. He was charging homeowners more for his work than big construction contractors were doing at the time.

One housewife in Palos Verdes didn’t like Dad’s bid, after receiving a cheaper proposal from a competitor. But later she’d become quite frustrated with the large construction contractor’s poor quality of work, and fired the firm. She called Dad and said she wanted to work with him. He told her she’d have to go on his waiting list.

She reluctantly did that and had to wait nearly two years for him to come back, charge more than the big contractor, and complete the remodeling that they’d started.

As for my mother, a simple fact tells it all. On August 24, 2019, she’ll be turning 101 years old.

“Have you ever known anyone this old,” she asks me when I visit her.

“No, Mom,” I tell her, “I’ve never met anyone as old as you.”

We don’t really know how she made it this long, beyond basic genetic strengths. We do think it has something to do with her practicing what gerontologists recommend. She does have regular social contact with others, and in recent years that’s been housemates and staff at her assisted living home. And she reads mystery books and does the crossword puzzle daily. Getting good healthcare and nutrition also helps her.

It also seems to have something to do with her attitudes and habitual practices. We used to tease her for being a bit quirky, living in her own world. But it seems to help keep her going at 100 years old.

I’m continually searching for the Truth, the meaning of life, more than my parents seem to have done. What will happen to our mother after she dies? Where is our father now? Am I much like my mother and father? What have I inherited? What kind of world do we live in today? What will it look like for future generations?

In his book, Varieties of Religious Experience, James explored several ways people have discovered their understanding of spiritual and philosophical truths. While some have experienced sudden and fantastic spiritual experiences, James wrote that most people have their own personal experiences gradually over a period of time — what he called the “educational variety.”

Why do many of us search endlessly for philosophical truths, grappling with mysteries and difficult questions? I doubt our two cats are doing it, nor any of their fellows in the animal kingdom. But we humans tend to do quite a lot of grappling.

Our world can appear to be chaotic and amoral, with insanity run rampant in violence, abuse, manipulation, lies, thievery, and tragedy. Is there some real meaning and order to it?

There’s also some amazing beauty out there, and things of wonder. It reminds me of a famous passage from Charles Dickens’ book, A Tale of Two Cities: “These were the best of times and the worst of times.”

Pragmatism bring us hope. We must continue doing what we believe in, no matter what else may be going on in our world.

We don’t really know how it all turns out after we die. Some of us, me included, believe there are rewards in our universe for treating others and ourselves with respect, love, and dignity.

I think another psychologist and philosopher had a similar mindset on the subject matter as James. American psychologist and author Abraham Maslow wrote about our “hierarchy of needs,” with the premise that humans won’t be creating art and pondering philosophical truths if we’re fighting to stay alive.

If we have a roof over our heads, beans and tortillas on the table, and a safe neighborhood to live in, life gets better. Then we can spend more time on relationships, having fun, finding rewarding work, and pondering the meaning of life.

Maslow was a pragmatist. He understood that economics is the principal platform for stability, social order, and creating space for development of creativity and constructive thinking and action.

The three leading thinkers in the discipline of pragmatism defined the philosophy as action over doctrine and experience over fixed principals. I would agree with them — I see pragmatism and self interest explaining why things happen.

Let’s take a look at a few examples of how it can work:

What will nations do about a key demographic trend taking place around the world — young people moving to cities and away from suburbs, small towns, and farmland? Living in overpopulated, crowded cities with jammed roadways, air pollution, and increasing tensions over available housing, the high cost of living, and a growing number of homeless people out on the streets, are becoming the reality we’d been warned about years ago. They will surely become top-of-the-list issues for those running for governor, senator, prime minister, president, and other seats.

Southern California, including my hometown of Long Beach, has seen its numbers grow and many times from people who’d been born and raised in another country. The southland is a focal point for political battles on immigration coming from the White House, and which have been hot topics for years in Washington, Sacramento, and other state capitals. Some fear all of this will increase the crime rate and tensions in communities. Others see it as an example of what will be taking place around the world, and they hope for positive outcomes.

The world’s population is at 7.7 billion people as of April 2019, according to the most recent United Nations estimate. The last time I’d looked it up a few years ago, it was at 7.3 billion. What does overpopulation mean today?

Who’s going to suffer, and who’s going to benefit and bring solutions?

Of the three pragmatist leaders, John Dewey was a pragmatic educator, recognized for establishing his famous “Laboratory School” in 1896 to develop and test “progressive” methods of teaching. This was inspired much by his fascination with how education could enhance democracy.

What would Dewey say about the rapidly changing job market in the U.S. and other economies around the world? Robotics and automation are here, and will be displacing jobs in big waves over the next two decades — drivers, factory workers, parts makers, maintenance and repair workers, security, and who knows what else. What would pragmatists say about it?

I, for one, would like to see a lot more focus on this reality with pragmatic deployment of the necessary job training, systems management, safety standards, and leaders who can guide the path between old systems clashing with new systems during the transition periods. That would include human-driven vehicles sharing roads with autonomous vehicles. The robotic revolution is a very big deal in how we’ll be working (and not working), going from Point A to Point B, and where displaced workers will end up.

What about surviving horrific storms? Climate change or no climate change, there are lots of natural disasters occurring regularly, coming from intense, unusual weather conditions. Some call it climate disruption and it’s getting worse all the time — flooding, fires, tsunamis, hurricanes, and blizzards are occurring regularly, becoming quite dangerous and destructive.

So what’s the pragmatic side of the coin here? Those who can bring rapid and effective disaster response will do well, especially as the growing global population moves closer to coastlines and waterways in major metro areas. We don’t want to see thousands, maybe millions, of casualties. Best practices will have to be deployed, and as history shows, humans will commit to new technology and thinking when the death rate and cataclysm go high enough.

You might have some passionate arguments to make in favor of your political, economic, cultural, religious, and philosophical beliefs. Please share them, as we do live in a democracy with freedom of speech. But I would say to you, “What’s in it for you? What’s in it for me? Will it work?”

What’s the real story behind the arguments?

We’re all self interested, and that can really be a good thing. If we’re all working hard — struggling — for our own good and for the loved ones close in our lives, our outside opinions will be shaped by that inner drive.

Why make lofty claims that sound superior to other people’s take on the matter? We’re all looking out for what’s best for our own needs and wants. So let’s be honest about it — and find ways to talk about these questions, these big ideas, before they become worst-case scenarios.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Woodstock turning 50 in August with big names and lots of history

(EDITOR'S NOTE:  The Woodstock concert scheduled for this year was canceled in April). The 50th anniversary of the historic Woodstock Festival is being scheduled for a run in August with some very big names among contemporary young artists, plus a few old timers. But it wasn’t the first Woodstock revival. In fact, it will be the fifth time Woodstock will show up in New York.

While the 1960s saw other historic concerts such as the Monterey Pop Festival and the tragic Altamont Motor Speedway concert, Woodstock was the biggest by far. Taking place in the summer of 1969, it was considered to be one of the closing chapters of the era. About 400,000 music fans were in attendance, with most of them having snuck in without buying tickets. Many of them abandoned their cars out on a state highway and walked in, backing up traffic for miles.

The new version is scheduled to run Aug. 15-18, 2019, at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts in New York. There will be a few big names — Jay-Z, Robert Plant, The Black Keys, Miley Cyrus, Imagine Dragons, The Killers, Chance the Rapper, Santana and Arlo Guthrie (who also played in 1969), Ringo Starr, Edgar Winters Band, the Doobie Bothers and Greta Van Fleet, among others — have committed to performing.

A screening of the documentary “Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music” will be held on Aug. 15. The music festival, dubbed Woodstock 50, has original Woodstock founder Michael Lang playing a big part in organizing the event.

You can view an extended director’s cut of “Woodstock” on DVD from the main director, Michael Wadleigh, that runs about three and a half hours. Martin Scorsese, fresh out of film school, served as assistant director and editor of the original documentary.

For those of us had just turned six years old when the Woodstock festival rocked the world, we later learned a few truths from the movie, such as…… Don’t take the brown LSD. Borrow some soap to get naked and take a bath out in the pond. Youngsters were more into partying and being wiser than their peers than they were in staging a global revolution. Jimi Hendrix was a lefty and could do some outrageous things on his Fender Stratocaster. He jammed out a lot more than a wild, extended version of the national anthem.

The playlist featured some of the biggest names of the day: Hendrix, Grateful Dead, Sly & the Family Stone, The Who, Joan Baez, Santana, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and Paul Butterfield Blues Band. You could also watch Sha Na Na start the 1950s/early 1960s revival that would help pave the way for “American Graffiti” and its soundtrack and “Happy Days.”

The first significant reunion concert took place on Sept. 8, 1979, at Parr Meadows racetrack in Suffolk County, Long Island, NY. The 10th anniversary concert had a much smaller audience, with estimates varying from 18,000 to 40,000 people. It was one of several Woodstock reunions that year, but it did feature some of the originals including Paul Butterfield, Canned Heat, Richie Havens, Country Joe McDonald, John Sebastian, Stephen Stills, and Johnny Winter.

The 1994 version commemorating the 25th anniversary has come the closest to recreating the size of the original audience. Taking place Aug. 12-13, 1994, on Winston Farm in Saugerties, NY, the event saw about 350,000 attendees who got to view more than 50 bands. It did see even more mud than the ’69 show, with incessant rain turning it into what was called “Mudstock.”

Fans paid this time and paid big — $135 each. You could also watch it on pay-per-view for $49. There were a few corporate sponsors — Haagen-Dazs, Apple, and Pepsi. Artists included Traffic, Metallica, Aerosmith, Peter Gabriel, the Allman Brothers Band, Green Day, Blues Traveler, and Blind Melon. Bob Dylan stole the show, after having turned down performing in ’69 even though he lived close by.

Woodstock ’99 didn’t go well at all. The Rome, NY, festival held in late July of 1999 featured a long list of big names in music, including Kid Rock, Counting Crows, Dave Matthews Band, Alanis Morissette, Limp Bizkit, and Rage Against the Machine. But music fans complained about exorbitant ticket prices and costly water bottles and food, and some of the crowd trashing the festival site and committing sexual assaults.

Woodstock founder Lang promises that this year’s show won’t be a rerun of Woodstock ’99, and that he’ll be playing a big role in making this one work. “Woodstock ’99 was just a musical experience with no social significance,” he said. “It was just a big party. With this one, we’re going back to our roots and our original intent. And this time around, we’ll have control of everything.”

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Grocery shopping for Instacart customers who really really really need to have it delivered

Grocery store shopping and delivery for Instacart, Incident #1:
A woman about 35 years old came to the front door of her house to take delivery of the groceries she’d ordered through her Instacart app. She was so glad to see me, but also looked like she was ready to collapse into a coma or turn into a zombie.

That came from the baby she was holding, probably less than a year old, who had his fingers in his mouth and stared me down through bright blue eyes. Then there was his sister, about three years old, wrapped around Mommy’s leg and crying in what would seconds later become a tantrum. Mom’s glazed-over eyes made more sense.

Incident #2:
A woman in her mid-80s let me in to her apartment. She guided me to the kitchen to set the groceries on a counter.

I saw her husband sitting in his wheelchair checking out the grocery bags, obviously in great discomfort. His wife wasn’t doing much better, and told me how glad she was to start using Instacart. She just couldn’t do the shopping anymore, and had to take care of her husband. Her granddaughter had just set up their account a month before and was taking care of their weekly grocery order. Life had gotten better in the past month she told me, with her husband shaking his head in agreement with nearly a smile on his face.

Incident #3:
The customer wanted 16 pounds of turkey burger at 90% lean and 10% fat. But Ralph’s meat section
only had three packages left with about a pound and a half in each one — only about 25 percent of what the customer ordered. The meat counter employee told me that’s all the turkey burger they would have until about 3:00 that afternoon — four hours later, which did me no good.

The turkey burger was part of a grocery order for a drug and alcohol rehab home in Huntington Beach. They had a huge order, but this could be a make or break situation. I had a few questions: Do I go to another Ralph’s store? Do I call the customer, who was probably extremely busy and wouldn’t answer or hear the voice mail or see a text message — which happened during the last order I’d done for them?

Incident #4:
A couple in their late-70s-to-early-80s shopped near me at a Stater Bros. in Fountain Valley. He seemed to be a bit of a novice as a grocery shopper, and his wife a veteran finding the best deals and the most logical combination of products for their planned meals over the next few days.

The husband tried to take control of the shopping trip, but he was promptly put back into his assistant role. He tried arguing about the best deal on cans of tuna, but she wouldn’t listen to him. They were eating a lot of it, and he didn’t get that the 7 oz. can was much more feasible than the 3 oz. can. He eventually grunted, shrugged it off, and gave in.

They would not become Instacart customers anytime soon — grocery shopping was too important and habitual for her. But there would come a day when it was not going to be feasible anymore. They may had seen enough Instacart shoppers to try it out.

Incident #5:
The customer stayed on me like a dog on a bone from the beginning of the Whole Foods Market shopping trip. It was his 65th Instacart order, and he had quite a few notes typed into several of the 40 items on the shopping list. “Make sure you look at the expiration dates,” “organic only,” “this flavor only or refund it,” and there was more.

It got better when I arrived at his house to finish the delivery. He may have been home, but wasn’t coming to the front door — or answering my phone call, voice mail, or responding to my text. So I reported it to an Instacart shopper helper, who told me to stay on the phone while he called the customer. It turned out that the customer was running late, stuck in traffic on the freeway. Go ahead and leave it there on the porch, I was told. Why the customer didn’t tell me that several minutes earlier, I don’t really know.

I represent a lot of people who'll you see in grocery stores wearing an Instacart lanyard, or one of their green or black t-shirts. Most all of the shopping trips go well, and customers are glad to see us show up with their groceries. They’re pleased they didn’t have the work through a big crowd at Costco, or have to lug a few of the water packs with 40 containers wrapped together in plastic.

The irritating episodes can make the day or evening into a stressful, highly annoying experience to go through. It does become a colorful story to tell, and sometimes the customer appreciates it enough to tip well.

Since April 2017, I’ve been participating in what thousands of other men and women have been doing:  full-service grocery shopping and delivery for Instacart as an independent contractor. I doubt I’ll be quitting soon.

That’s the longest I’ve ever worked for a mobility service, and I’ve done plenty of them.

Prior to Instacart, I occasionally made decent income taking people on Lyft and Uber rides that really paid off late at night or early in the morning, which I wrote about in Tales of UberMan. Later I tried out Postmates under the guidance of a fellow ride-hailing driver. It had Uber and Lyft beat with pay for a few months; but that all changed when my home market of Long Beach became swamped with drivers like me. DoorDash was a little bit better, and I tried out UberEats.

I’ve also tried out Deliv for package delivery from a Best Buy store or another retail outlet to someone’s home or workplace. And we had guests stay over during the summer through Airbnb, which worked out but could occasionally be troublesome — trying to get the room ready by 3:00 in the afternoon, or earlier if a special request was accepted.

I even dropped a freelance writing gig last year, after having had enough of the poor treatment from the editor. I added on more Instacart hours and never looked back.

To answer your questions on my non-Instacart mobility service experiences:

  • Yes, people vomited in my car during Uber and Lyft rides. Quite fortunately, both of them just barely cleared the car’s doorway and kept it from splattering on my carpet or upholstery.
  • Yes, I did have more than one passenger creating an alcohol/drug-induced, near-psychotic, and potentially near-death, experience in my car. 
  • Yes, I did feel like I should be paid to be a rider’s therapist more than once after listening to him or her whining endlessly about their current or ex-significant other. One of these trips involved a woman who needed a ride to stalk her ex-boyfriend who was on a date with another woman at a bar. 
  • Yes, young people did take great advantage of offers from Postmates for partners like Chick-fil-A that took nearly all the financial gains away from working that day with their discounts and freebie offers. No tips were offered, of course.
  • Yes, I have worked with job placement agencies for a good job in editorial and ancillary fields (research, marketing communications, etc.). No, I haven’t found a job yet. 
  • Yes, I do have concerns over finances — good pay, benefits, and retirement — and I do have some irons in the fire beyond Instacart, Uber, and other mobility services.

I don’t see me staying with Instacart for years to come, but for today I will continue doing the best I can at customer-centric grocery shopping and delivery.

I started up at Instacart with a training session and a test given at a Whole Foods Market in Irvine. That was right before Amazon bought the Whole Foods company and started moving away from Instacart and over to Amazon Fresh and Amazon Prime for grocery shopping and delivery.

I got to ask the Instacart trainer good questions and to check in with my fellow newbies. It wasn’t easy for several weeks after I’d started. I’d never been much of a grocery shopper before Instacart.

Unfortunately, the in-store training went away for new shoppers months later. Instacart staff has been swamped with its employer adding new grocery chains and geographic locations to its fast-growing infrastructure.

The business model ties into what I see as a major economic growth area — fast, convenient, affordable services for busy people of all types — aging people, those with physical limitations, parents taking care of their children, customers with a demanding career and a very busy lifestyle, and consumers who just have to try out the mobile app at least one time or a promotional offer from their grocery store.

I’ve had several batches delivered to people who recently had surgeries and couldn’t lift anything over 10-to-20 pounds. Boy, were they glad to see me.

Last year, Amazon bought Whole Foods Market to establish a strong presence in the grocery space through its Amazon Fresh division. A few major companies are acquiring shopper startup companies and creating their own business units — and that includes Walmart, Kroger, and Target. FreshDirect and Peapod have been building their owner grocery shopping and delivery mobile app-based services for several years, and are serious Instacart competitors.

The question for mobility drivers — who may have put in a lot of hours driving their cars for Uber and Lyft riders; delivering meals for Postmates, DoorDash, and GrubHub; dropping off packages for Amazon Flex/Prime or Deliv; picking up kids at school and after music lessons for HopSkipDrive; and doing full-service shopping and delivery for Instacart — is how you make it worthwhile financially.

Then there’s the question of quality of life. Is it worth it?

It is a bit strange being one of the few men in the grocery store. Sure, the general manager is a male and there are a few young men working the meat counter, produce, and bringing in shopping carts stranded out in the parking lot.

But grocery shopping, and working as checkers and other key grocery jobs, is a woman’s game.

I’ve seen that in body language a few times, such as when I’m needing to step in and find the yogurt I need to fulfill the customer’s order. I might get stared at disdainfully by a mom with her baby propped up in a baby seat; or another woman quickly side stepping out of the way as if I were going to knock her over.

I might be given an apology from someone who doesn’t owe me one. Just because she needs to pass in front of me with her cart while I’m scanning a shelf for the right tortillas, I don’t need to receive an apology for someone who’s not really getting in the way. I suppose her family had trained her to be way too polite when she was a little girl.

I’m usually too obsessed with getting the shopping done correctly and promptly, and can be a little bit socially inept. So I try to stay conscious of my fellow shoppers while gliding down the aisles and finding what I’m looking for to scan on my phone and place in the shopping cart. It’s not good to have enemies in a shopping store.

While I really don’t want to end up doing it years from now, I’ve found that Instacart works for me.

Some days, the money can be really good. I might have done two double orders and one requiring two carts and speciality orders at the deli and meat counter. The tips are usually generous.

Some days the money isn’t so good. An hour or more can pass with no batch popping up on my app. The orders can be small, along with the tips.

The stories I shared at the beginning tell the real story for me. It is quite satisfying to deliver the food and household products that people need to live and thrive; and maybe they really can’t do it for themselves anymore.

While Uber and Postmates might be delivering customers extra conveniences, Instacart is bringing groceries to their door that can be nearly as important as the air they breathe.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

How a failed rock critic turned working writer — and a big fan of Lester Bangs and rock ’n’ roll

“Because the best music is strong and guides and cleanses and is life itself.
So perhaps the truest autobiography I could ever write, and I know this holds well for many other people, would take place largely at record counters, jukeboxes, pushing forward in the driver’s seat while AM walloped you on, alone under the headphones with vast scenic bridges and angelic choirs in the brain through insomniac postmidnights, or just sit at leisure stoned or not in the vast benign lap of America, slapping on sides and feeling good.”
— Lester Bangs

You may have noticed that my blog is defined as: “writings, reviews, and ramblings from a failed rock critic turned working writer.”

Ok, what’s the story behind the failed rock critic?

Was there an internship with Rolling Stone, Spin, Entertainment Weekly, Billboard, or American Songwriter that failed to turn into a job?

Were there countless hours doing album reviews, concert coverage, and artist interviews for very low pay?

Was there a book that never got published that could have been considered a classic in rock music history?


My story as a working writer goes back to 1987, when I attempted to have an article published about who I thought was a true legend in rock music writing — Lester Bangs.

Lester Bangs and a few other peers — especially Greil Marcus, Robert Christgau, Ellen Willis, Nick Kent, and his former boss, Dave Marsh — were going down a similar channel. They were passionate writing about music that had become the life blood of pop culture and social change.

Pop music critics Robert Hilburn and Richard Cromelin at the LA Times also had influence on me. I might have read Hilburn’s piece on this strange new band, Devo, launching their first album. Then I would see them playing on Saturday Night Live in their radioactivity-protected jump suits and goggles — and I was at a record store the next morning buying the record. Cromelin might have gotten a bit more esoteric and written about artists like Pere Ubu, Captain Beefheart, The Damned, Roxy Music, and Brian Eno.

Bangs, much like Hunter S. Thompson, would become a character in the story. You might learn about all about the oddities of traveling on the Lou Reed concert tour in 1975; or taking an aggressive stance by starting out an interview with unconventional questions; or making fun of pop culture fluff, admitting that he and his girlfriend might be watching “The Donnie & Marie Show” on their date night.

While Bangs may not make a search list in the “literary nonfiction” realm with Truman Capote, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, Mark Twain, Alice Walker, Annie Dillard, H.L. Mencken, P.J. O’Rourke, Susan Sontag, and Hunter S. Thompson, he did inspire me to become a writer. I was nearly as obsessed with rock music as we was.

That period — 1975 to 1980 — was my favorite in rock music history, as I came of age and could listen to radio, buy 45s and LPs, read magazines like Creem, go to concerts, and watch the early days of video from artists like Peter Gabriel and David Bowie. Then there were older collections released for the first time like Bob Dylan and the Band’s Basement Tapes and Elvis Presley’s Sun Sessions (hearing “That’s All Right, Mama,” being one of those moments I’ll never forget). You could also sample different styles like reggae from Bob Marley & The Wailers’ Live!, to The Harder They Come soundtrack album.

I engaged in passionate debate with buddies — why I wasn’t as into Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, and Aerosmith anymore as I was into The Clash, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, Elvis Costello & the Attractions, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Graham Parker & the Rumour, Pretenders, X, Blondie, and Talking Heads.

It also didn’t go well that I liked sneaking into see John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever and there was some disco I liked; and I was into where soul and R&B were going with Earth Wind & Fire, Parliament Funkadelic, Al Green, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Michael Jackson, and Prince making some great recordings.

I was becoming a left-leaning anti-establishment cynic who may have glorified the ‘60s a bit before learning more about its dark side. But the music was amazing, and I could find restored versions of classics from the early days at one of several record stores I perused regularly.

Lester Bangs and his peers were brilliant writing about the uneasy social change in the atmosphere, and the fun and chaos coming from sex and drugs and rock & roll. They LOVED rock music, with some of them crossing over to writing and playing some of their own. Lester Bangs took a stab at it with friends, recording “Let it Blurt” and other songs that were not very listenable, in my opinion.

But boy could he write. I became immersed in Bangs’ writing with the release of Psychotic Reactions & Carburetor Dung, edited with a forward by another one of my rock critic heroes, Greil Marcus. Bangs was enthralled with where the music was heading, and also frustrated and depressed by sports stadium mega-concerts with pricey tickets, and bands like Kansas, Styx, and Toto getting heavy radio play while rockers he considered to be true artists struggled to be heard.

He was quite the critic, dismissing rockstars I still enjoy listening to that were just not up to his high standards for music disrupting mainstream pop — and that you’d just want to blast off your stereo 150 times.

His writing style was also in the spirit of his music heroes, some from bebop jazz, others from garage protopunk bands; some that fuzed the styles, like Van Morrison’s brilliant jazz-based Astral Weeks album.

He’d died at a very early age, 33, in 1982, though the cause of death wasn’t quite clear. He had been drinking a bottle of Romilar cough syrup every day and was considered an alcoholic.

Bangs’ style reminded me of “new journalism” writers like Hunter S. Thompson being part of the story, unlike Tom Wolfe’s best-selling books where he wrote in the third person like a newspaper reporter. Thompson’s first book, Hells Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, went in another direction. The book starts with him laying near dead along a highway where he'd been beaten up and stomped on by the biker gang after spending nearly a year riding with them; and drinking with them and nearly becoming one of them.

When I spoke with Greil Marcus, I was shocked by where the interview was going. I had read his book, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock & Roll Music. He’d written a series of essays tying in great music of the day from Bob Dylan, The Band, Sly & the Family Stone, and Randy Newman, and connecting it to the history of American music going back to its roots, such as blues legend Robert Johnson.

During our phone interview, Marcus dismissed Mystery Train as being insignificant and from his past. He’d changed direction, he said, working on another one called Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. That book was quite different, correlating 20th century avant-garde movements such as Dadaism with the Sex Pistols and other late-1970s British punk bands.

Bangs had a similar practice of winding down an intellectual, distant path that separated him from the common rock music fan. Bangs loved Count Five, Velvet Underground, the Stooges, MC5, and Public Image, Ltd. In a radio interview, he dismissed Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders as being unoriginal and like many rock banks of the day — pretty much boring and pointless, and not radical, innovative, and avant garde enough.

I’ve tended to go more toward the center — loving the Pretenders, and a few other artists that Bangs dismissed.

My fascination with him comes down more to his contribution to the DIY (do it yourself) movement. A rough, provocative, and sometimes hilarious, character like Lester Bangs could become a leading rock critic. Then there was Charles Bukowski, the rough and drunk postal worker who occasionally wrote great poems. And punk rock, that broke down into songs with two-to-three chords played by rockers who’d probably never taken a music class. Beatniks from the 1950s like Jack Kerouac would fit into the DIY category as well.

No one wants to end up like Bangs. He didn’t last very long, and missed out on a lot more years of great writing, love, friendship, travel, and colorful stories. I’d rather lean toward the center, and do the real-life stuff to stick around longer and enjoy more years of writing and living.

I had pitched my article on the Lester Bangs book to a few publications and it never got published. But it was the first step in becoming a writer — that got me to back to school for journalism, take an editorial job at a business magazine publishing company, and launch a long series of writing projects that have been tough to do and richly satisfying to type and type and type.

That’s one thing I’ve had in common with Lester Bangs — can’t stop typing.

Bangs did cultivate a following. Philip Seymour Hoffman played him in Almost Famous.

“How to Be a Rock Critic,” a one-man play, ran earlier this year at the Public Theatre in New York City, exploring Bangs’s life, work, and death. Wearing a “Detroit Sucks” t-shirt, Bangs preaches to the choir around a stage littered with empty Chinese takeout cartons, pill bottles, crushed Schlitz cans, magazines, and endless crates of records.

“Nobody touch my fucking records,” he warns early on.

I doubt I’ll be making any more efforts to become a rock critic. I’ll always be keeping my voice as a writer alive and putting it out there, just like Lester Bangs.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Jon's birthday party this Sunday


                            Interested in some chips and salsa, a combo plate
                                        and celebrating a friend's birthday?

                                                                Jon's birthday dinner
                                                           Sunday, Aug. 5 at 5:30 pm
                                                                        Super Mex
                                                           14730 Culver Drive, Suite F
                                                                    Irvine, CA 92604

                                 Let Jon know if you and any others plan on showing up
                                        (so that enough tables and chairs will be in place) 
                                                by phone call, text, email, or Facebook

                                No birthday gifts, please. Showing up is more than enough.