Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Brett Underwood Stimulus Package at CBGB

This is an image of the bill my old friend Brett Lars Underwood paid for a new set of wheels for his bicycle. The old wheels were stolen. Replacing them set Brett back $281.45.

Petty theft in the Murder City is no big news. Everybody is hurting for money, and at least Brett has a job where he can make that money back. Every doctor's office has somebody sitting in it who is going down the tubes over medical bills that make this receipt look like total chump change. But still, this bothered me.

It bothered me, in part, because Brett is a bartender with a two-week vacation to Madrid on the books (he leaves Thursday). Every vacation is an unpaid vacation for a bartender - not a great time to cough up $281.45 for something he already had. And Brett is one of the more honest and generous guys you'll ever meet in your life.

So I threw together a humble little benefit for the guy - an impromptu hootenanny at CBGB, 3163 South Grand, this next Monday, April 6 (9 p.m. until we run out of steam, or barman Eric Hall wants to plays some CDs).

I got yesses from Fred Friction, Christopher Y. Voelker, Frank Heyer, Tim McAvin, Colin Michael Shaw and myself. Also invited: Sunyatta Marshall, Mark Stephens, Tim Rakel, Marc Chechick, K. Curtis Lyle. Maybe more. Come play.

Since the tires already have been replaced and Brett will be in Spain on the night of the event, we can think of this as a Brett Underwood Stimulus Package. We are in effect raising money for him to put back into the local economy when he gets back home, spent at places he frequents by riding his rehabilitated bike.

We'll pass the hat for Brett's tires. I don't expect to raise $281.45 on a Monday night on South Grand, but if we come up with $50, that's $50 Brett will have in hand to spend when he gets back home. And I speak from experience: if you run into him at the bar, he'll be spending in on you.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Nobody can find Jesus, isn't that right, Daddy?

My daughter looked at a crucifix hanging on the wall and said, "They have a fake one of those in every church, don't they, Daddy?"

I was walking her to her Sunday school class yesterday. I understand her, so I knew "fake" was not meant as an insult. She meant "fake" as opposed to the actual, real Jesus Christ, suffering on the cross on the wall.

I told her that was right, there is more than one crucifix replica in every church.

"That's because they can't find him," Leyla said. "Nobody can find Jesus. They go to the place where he is buried and they still can't find him, isn't that right, Daddy?"

What do you say to that? I honestly don't remember what I said to that.


Crucifix image from some Catholic blog.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

I always have fun drawing pictures of David Robertson

I always have fun drawing pictures of David Robertson.

It's part of the maestro gig, to have superexpressive hand gestures and body mojo. David has all that.

David was all about "stage right" with the superexpressive had gestures when conducting Sibelius' Symphony No. 5 Friday night at Powell.

I'll have to ask one of the musicians or David himself what it was about this score and the physical arrangement of the sections onstage that had the conductor conducting up a storm to the musicians to his left.

David also was styling high last night in his longtail black tux. He was a delight to watch all night long, but especially during Sibelius 5.

And I doubt anyone else on earth could have teased and tapped more intuition or ensemble interplay out of this orchestra playing this program of music than David Robertson did last night from the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra.

Speaking from the nosebleeds, where the seats were free for bloggers, the sound was sublime, and the crowd was agreeably quirky and engaged, I can report that the St. Louis audience loves this man and loves this band and knows how good we have it.


This piece was produced for Eddie Silva and The Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra Publications Department as part of its online media effort, "Blogger's Night II."

Notes and sketches to be continued, covering a conversation before the show with cello honcho Danny Lee. Also, SLSO plays the same program again 3 p.m. today, Sunday, March 29. Then on to Carnegie Hall (April 4).

Companion pieces:

SLSO Blogger's Night II: an adventure with friends

Maria chanted, Henry translated, Kaija scored, David directed, Karita sang, I assigned, Leyla drew

Composition for orchestra and psychedelic mushroom

The finale of Sibelius No. 5 is not to be missed. Our friends at YouTube bring us The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra getting it done for conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen.

SLSO Blogger's Night II: an adventure with friends

Some doodles and thoughts about the first half of last night's program performed by The Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, under the musical direction of David Robertson.

The performance of Good Friday Music from Parsifal by Wagner sent me into a long gauzy daydream during which I could hardly lift my pen. I didn't sketch. I didn't want to break the wholeness of the experience by concentrating on any one part of it.

Finally, after the piece was finished, I wrote,

a book of big days
a long lumunous connection
to a harmony of soul
"A book of days" is a title in my head for a collection of imagistic poems, culled from days when I went on some elaborate adventure with other people and kept notes. The evolution of this performance of that piece of music felt like that. It's just about as good as I am able to feel.

If the Wagner felt like living in a fable with trusted and adventurous friends, the Zimmerman Canto di speranza felt more like being on a gig, in an avante chamber setting.

One lady said, "Hmmmmm" at it, right in the middle of the piece, far loudly than people ever exclaim anything during performance at Powell Symphony Hall.

I really think she was just that sharply struck with spontaneous delight: similar effect, in terms of involuntary response, if you had dropped a sharp object onto her foot secretly in the dark.

I started to prowl around in Paul Schiavo's ever smart and tartly written program notes. I liked his description of the "pointillist textures", that summed it up.

After the band wrapped up the pointillist tune, I turned to my date for the show, the poet K. Curtis Lyle, and said, "That was smoking great."

Then a great soprano strode to the stage and sang "Luonnotar" by Sibelius. A drop screen followed the vocal in English, which I appreciated. Here was one good line:

a life
I relished the fact that for this program the orchestra had so much playing on my favorite color instruments (oboes, bassoons, harps), often in relatively intimate musical settings. Another adventure among friends.

A young-sounding man behind me had his own thoughts about a favorite instrument in the band tonight. "How often does the bongo guy get to play?" he wanted to know.

Then, after the beautiful music, the awful arhythmic percussion of our applause.


Notes and sketches to be continued, with the second half of the program. Also, the band hits the same program again 3 p.m. Sunday, then takes the show on the road to Carnegie Hall.


This piece was written for Eddie Silva and The Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra Publications Department as part of its online media effort, "Blogger's Night II."

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Introducing: The Heel to Toe Happy Hour

I think I am onto something: The Heel to Toe Happy Hour.

The idea came to me the other day when I was picking up my daughter from afterschool care. While she gathered her stuff, I paced the room. I found myself walking heel to toe. Helplessly, I thought of roadside sobriety tests.

My balance is way off and I'm a fairly clumsy guy. I couoldn't pass the heel to toe sobriety test when I am stone sober. But I did notice that I got a little better at it the other day, the longer I did it.

Then it occurred to me that a little practice in heel to toe walking might not be a bad idea for someone who was driving home after having a couple of drinks - enough for Officer Friendly to smell alcohol and call for some roadside walking games.

So I thought it would be a clever idea for bars to have Heel to Toe Happy Hours, where people loosen up over a beer or two and practice those roadside moves that might make the difference between getting back in your car and driving home or going for a ride to the station house in the back of the cruiser.

Mind you, I am not trying to offer an escape route for drunk drivers. As a father, I want those guys off the road - or busted when they are on it. I am talking about the clumsy guy with beer on the breath but a fresh head for driving.

Though I have never been ticketed for anything worse than speeding, I'll admit I have been taken to the station once for a sobriety test. Why? Because I failed the heel to toe perp walk so miserably!

I told the cop, when she asked for it, "If you are going to base your decision on this, take me in right now. I have had a lot of neck and head injuries. I can not walk heel to toe. But I'm sober."

I was right on both counts. I wobbled instead of walked, she took me "downtown" (actually, to an undisclosed suburban police station), I blew in a tube ... and I was sober.

It would have saved us both a lot of trouble if I had just practiced my heel to toe before leaving the bar that night ...


Pic from a university web story about students drinking to do perp walks for student cops.

I come pretty close, I feel it, I can't explain it

My buddy K. Curtis Lyle and I had one of those freewheeling conversations over the phone today that are possible only among very old friends who can speak in telegraphic shorthand about complex subjects and veer into very dangerous and profane territory without fear of judgment or exposure.

It was fun. It opened my head a little wider.

He told me one story about a man who lived just a little bit above his means, emotionally and in terms of epistemology. It made me think of a poem about reaching for something amazing that you can't quite reach.

This poem is by Orhan Veli, one of the fathers of modern Turkish poetry. With his friends Oktay Rifat and Melih Cevdet, Orhan Veli founded a literary movement known as Garip, a word that translates as both "strange" and "lonesome".


(moro romantico)

If I cry
Will you hear
My voice
In lines of verse?
Can you touch my tears?

I never knew songs were so beautiful
And words so insufficient
Before falling into this trouble

There is a place, I know
Where it's possible to say everything
I come pretty close
I feel it
I can't explain it

[April, 1940]

By Orhan Veli
Translated by Defne Halman and Chris King


I cotranslated Orhan Veli's collected poems with a wild child of Turkish literature, the punk rock actor chick Defne Halman. Defo is the daughter of Talat S. Halman, the dean of Turkish letters; among a thousand other accomplishments, Papa is the translator of Shakespeare into Turkish.

Defo moved to Istanbul :( I miss her.

Image of the poet poached from the Project for Innovative Poetry blog.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Hawaiian sports agent and the local golf sponsor

There really aren't that many good days, in this sense, but on a good day a press release from the U.S. Attorney's Office reads like a good pitch for a fun, snarky TV episode.

Today is a good day.



Andrew W. Moss, CEO of Onyx Sports Group, Inc. pleaded guilty to a wire fraud charge involving his embezzlement from a local golf sponsor, United States Attorney Catherine L. Hanaway announced today.

According to the facts filed with the court, Moss and his agency Onyx Sports Group, Inc. of Honolulu, Hawaii represents aspiring athletes in sports and marketing. Scott Yancy III, Glen Carbon, IL is an aspiring professional golfer who was a client of Moss and Onyx, and who had received some notoriety for his part in the reality television series “The Big Break II” aired on the Golf Channel.

Yancy met a sponsor at a charity golf tournament in St. Louis, who agreed to provide money to Yancy as he attempted to make the PGA Tour. Yancy directed him to contact Moss. Moss directed the sponsor to wire $50,000 to a bank account in Hawaii that he had set up to pay Yancy’s expenses. The sponsor then wired the money to that account on June 11, 2008.

After wiring the money, the sponsor repeatedly inquired with Yancy about the money he had paid Moss. Yancy said that he never received any of the money. The sponsor demanded a refund from Moss, who had used the funds for his personal expenses. Moss then obtained the sponsor’s bank account number and wiring information, supposedly to refund the money.

Moss wired $10,000, but not the complete refund. Instead, Moss used the sponsor’s
account information to withdraw $21,000 from the account. In total, Moss fraudulently obtained $61,000 from the sponsor.

Moss, 26, Honolulu, Hawaii, pleaded guilty to one felony count of wire fraud before United States District Judge Henry E. Autrey. He now faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and/or fines up to $250,000, when he is sentenced on June 13, 2009.

Hanaway commended the work on the case by the United States Secret Service; and Assistant United States Attorney Matthew Schelp, who is handling the case for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Perhaps one day Hanaway will be commending the IRS and FBI investigators who worked with her staff in unraveling the "by hook and by crook" towing scandal involving the St. Louis Police Department. A whole lot of fleeced taxpayers and one whistleblower cop are waiting!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Them rich folks think of everything (bathroom humor)

I'm usually not one for bathroom humor;I think it's fair to expect someone to outgrow that.

But I took this picture and I am posting it with the suggestion that you click to enlarge it and check out the options this system claims to provide.

I have never dreamt of a "full-service" commode, and I did not test this full range of services, though it's really something to think about.

Reminds me of the joke about the poor slob who pumped gas for the great golfer Arnold Palmer.

This joke dates from a period when golf was still considered "the bosses' game" and was not widely known outside of elite and elitist circles. Also the era of the ubiquitous gas attendant.

So Mr. Palmer pulls up to get some gas and leaves the usual stuff from a golfer's life behind in the car as he goes to use the men's room (more bathroom humor, it seems).

While scraping clean the windshield on Arnold Palmer's Cadillac, the poor slob notices a small wooden pin with a little cupped bowl on the top of it. He has never seen anything like it before in his life.

He is still thinking about it when the owner of the car (unknown to the poor slob) returns.

The poor slob, detecting a pleasant if evidently rich man, asks what it was, that wooden pin with the small rounded bowl on the top of it he had been looking at.

"Oh, that's a golf tee," Arnold Palmer says.

Palmer senses the guy doesn't know what he is talking about. So he grabs a tee off of his dashboard and tosses it to the attendant.

"We use it to put our balls on when we are driving," Mr. Palmer says, as he pilots his Cadillac away.

The poor slob is left looking at the wooden pin and thinking about what the man in the Cadillac had said.

"Them rich folks think of everything," he thinks to himself.


Photograph taken in Los Angeles County.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Sunset over Santa Monica Beach

I snapped these pictures the last day we had sustained sun until the sunset. A sunset seemed like the right way to say goodbye to Los Angeles after a two-week working vacation out here. It's the once city that I miss the way I miss people. Well, the one city other than St. Louis. And that's my next stop. (Click on them and they get bigger, by the way.)

Sunday, March 22, 2009

"Water Bread & Beer" tracklist, draft two

Not much came creatively out of two weeks in L.A. for me, though it was a family trip and I expected as much. Matt Fuller and I did come up with a tracklist for the next Eleanor Roosevelt record, Water Bread & Beer, which I posted early on in this journey.

After living with this for a dozen days and volleying various suggestions back and forth, we have added a song that Matt and I had excluded ("Grainery Light") and moved "James Brown Boulevard" up in the song order, which required some additional jostling for mood and tempo management.

Here is draft two of that tracklist:

Free mp3s
Water Bread & Beer
Eleanor Roosevelt

1. "Watch a cloud"

2. "Children's rain song"

3. "Wheelchair"

4. "Me as a horse"

5. "Pepper soup & local honey"

6. "James Brown Boulevard"

7. "Strangers & dangers"

8. "Grainery Light"

9. "Death & taverns"

10. "Tortilla"

11. "Girl from Central Maine"

12. "Seeds & shit"

13. "Nothing feels better than doing wrong"

14. "Pair of skunks"

15. "Head rolling down a hill"

16. "Dry Bones"

All songs by Matt Fuller, Chris King, Lij & John Minkoff, with some lyrics adapted from other sources (see previous post).

Eleanor Roosevelt is: Matt Fuller (drums, guitars, banjo, vocals), Chris King (vocals, guitar), Lij (banjo, guitars, harmonica, drums, lobster pot percussion, vocals), Dave Melson (bass), John Minkoff (guitars). With: Adam Long (cello), Geoffrey Seitz (fiddle), Heidi Dean (vocals), Jacob Lawson (violins), Nate Shaw (drums) and Joe Esser (bass).

Recorded and rough-mixed by Lij, here and there all over the country (that's another story!).

The previous post has information about lyrical sources for the other songs. As for "Grainery Light," I made it up about the grainery light in my hometown of Granite City, Illinois, and its role in the lives of the children who grew up in its shadow, as I did. I have never written a more autobiographical song.


That's my sketch of a beermaking (and drinking) scene from an ancient Mesopotamian cylinder seal - the sort of thing one destroys when one bombs Iraq. When I get home I'll scan and upload Matt's sketches of water bread & beer from back in the day, which hopefully he or Johnny will make the basis of a painting for the album cover.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Swinging with Billy Mitchell at The Culver Club

These are drawings my daughter did last night while we were listening to the first set at The Culver Club and visiting with our neighbors at the table.

I was pushing for her to get started on volume two of her vacation journal. Volume one had seemed to concentrate a bit too much on her fast food adventures. I was anxious for her to get to the beaches and the carnivals on the piers.

She said no, she would draw her favorite things to do when she is home in St. Louis. I liked that, a survivor's knack. You don't get to stay in L.A., so you set your mind to what you like about where you are going: back home.

I couldn't possible be any more pleased with the portrait of me in the second panel, a spitting image for Charles Chaplin in his Tramp character, which I adore as much as I adore anything. (Favorite film: City Lights.)

I almost pulled a stunt from a classic silent film comedy. The skirt on the tablecloth at our table was just the right length to get tucked under my hams when I sat down. Just before we were served food and drinks, it got tucked under me, and I gave the tablecloth a spirited yank that would have made a depressing mess five minutes later, when the table was piled with steak frites, a tall glass of ale, and flat bread pizza.

You can see Leyla Fern starting to get into the rhythm of the evening in the third panel, which departs from meditations on home to embrace the atomosphere of the evening in The Culver Club. It's a straight-ahead jazz venue in the lobby of our hotel, which takes its name from the town where it is located, Culver City in L.A. County, on the edge of the city.

Billy Mitchell was leading a pentet on piano and the occasional party vocal. On the trapset: an African-American elder like the leader himself, intent and natty in a beret. The percussionist looked cut from a similar cloth, though dressed in square office attire, looking more middle manager than bongo player.

The bassist and guitarist were younger Asian guys, evidently easy in their skins. The guitar player looked like a Polynesian hipster in a porkpie hat. The bassist had a broad, handsome, expressive face that looked Japanese.

When Billy introduced the bassist (as Nori Iji), Billy said he "just flew in from Tokyo." Nori Iji lifted his hands from his instrument to flap his arms, then bowed at the leader. Billy rose from the piano, touched his palms together, and bowed back.

These theatrical touches, and the satisfying swing of the music - colored by Yu Ooka's bright and pristine guitar tonality, swept along by Nori Iji's grasp of funk and groove - must have got to Leyla. She drew a piano, a guitar, a drumset, and a musician.

She also wrote on the panel. The pictures get bigger if you click it, so you can see for yourself Leyla's improvised spellings, but this (she told me) is what she was trying to say: "A band can be named Fireworks. For a band, you would need people and instruments."

Her imaginary band name was a response to events onstage. The bassist was having a hard time with his amplifier, which kept making sonic-mishap-from-hell sounds. One of these screeches, I was sure, was accompanied by a flash from the amp, which scared the daylights out of me - enough to call our waiter and suggest they stop the show before the curtain behind the bandstand went up in an electrical fire.

Before we got immolated - or trampled, in a large crowd of jazz lovers trying to exit a burning club - the band took their scheduled set break. Leyla and I excused ourselves from our lovely table neighbors and wormed our way between the cramped tables to meet the musicians.

The percussionst, Dr. Roland Holmes, was nowhere to be found, but we greeted everyone else, even a nettled Nori Iji, contending with the fried amp. The trapset drummer, Quentin Dennard, was the most animated. He jived and danced and cut up with Leyla, defying this tiny five-year-old to take her music seriously, to practice devotedly, to live it and breathe it.

The leader was more distracted, more called upon and fragmented, which is the fate of the bandleader. He still paused and connected with the child. "So, do you want to be a musician?" Billy Mitchell asked.

Leyla held up four fingers and said something that Billy, distracted in a crowded club of people who came to see him, didn't catch.

"So, you're four?" he said.

"No," Leyla said. "I am going to have four jobs when I grow up."

"You don't have time for that conversation," I said to Billy, who looked quietly grateful to be freed from the outgoing little girl so he could mingle with his people.

Leyla finished her story to the next woman who stopped her. Every African-American mother of a certain age in the entire club made an effort to to adore this child.

Leyla said, "I am going to be a movie star, a model, a singer, and a comedian," counting off the four jobs

The mother adored her. "Are you going to sing for us tonight?" she asked, petting Leyla's shoulder.

No, Mother, not last night. Maybe someday. Who knows?

Though, when we got back up into the hotel room, Leyla did insist that we start her a blog. So, we started her a blog.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Shades of grey: Redondo Beach on a cloudy day

We are in Los Angeles during a period of mostly cool weather, with intermittent overcast days. A certain kind of sun worshipper would have been devastated by this development, but not me. I worship the sun, but also the wind and the rain. I have actually enjoyed the variation.

Yesterday at Rendondo Beach, for example, it was cold and grey. But to me, these photos (enlarged when clicked) show the beautiful variations in grey. It's actually one of my favorite colors, though I regret its intrusion into my once sandy brown hair.

On this trip, I have been rereading Charles Nicholl's masterful biography of my favorite English-language writer, the Elizabethan pamphleteer Thomas Nashe. Nashe was born in Lowestoft, East Anglia, on England's rainy eastern coast. The high in Lowestoft today was 55 F - only slightly below the high here in L.A.

Also on this trip, I saw a college friend, Rebecca Sattin, I have not seen in 20 years. Over a delicious dinner at Cafe Brasil, she reminded me of the time she visited my family home in Granite City, Illinois - just across the Mississippi River from Washington University, but also a world away. For as long as I have been alive, it has been a small, dying steel town.

"I'll never forget your directions," Rebecca said, with a laugh. "You said, 'Turn left at the slag heap.' I didn't even know what a slag heap was! You said, 'Don't worry, you'll know it when you see it'!"

"And," I reminded her, "the second part of those directions - which I gave many times, to a whole lot of people - was: 'If you see the blast furnace, you have gone too far'. Most people also didn't know what a blast furnace was. So, I would tell them, again, 'Don't worry, you'll know it when you see it'!"

Slag heaps, blast furnaces, rolled steel: all things grey, all shades of grey, like Lowestoft (I'd imagine); like Redondo Beach on a cloudy day.


On Redondo Beach, I met with my new musical partner Crane, former sideman and friend of The Minutemen, as I narrate on the Poetry Scores blog.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

With Doc's grandbaby on Santa Monica Pier

The St. Louis American, where I work, is a family business in every way. It is owned by a family and more or less operated as one. Not that we don't have our problems (as families do), and not that we aren't forced to make hard business decisions (as businesses do, especially nowadays). But anyone who works at the paper any stretch of time eventually comes to observe how much like a big, rowdy, loving family it is.

The publisher, Donald M. Suggs, is very much the patriarch of this family. Like a patriarch, he is both feared and loved by the rest of us. I have felt an especially close tie to his blood kin, in the five years I have been with the paper, because one of his daughters, Dina M. Suggs, essentially recruited me when we were both living in New York. And his other daughter, Dawn Suggs, lives in my favorite city, Los Angeles, so I get a chance to visit with her once a year or so.

On this trip out here, Dawn was a must-see, because there is a new baby in the family, Delali. This beautiful little baby girl is the first granddaughter for Doc, as Suggs is affectionately known (he is an oral surgeon by trade, a publisher by passion).

On Tuesday we met Dawn and Delali on Santa Monica Pier and visited for a little while in the gaudy sunshine that defines this special place. Our daughter Leyla - an only child with a profound jones to be a big sister - kept reaching for Delali, and though these particular pictures don't show it, the baby kept reaching for Leyla when she was in someone else's arms.

I was so happy, I text-messaged Suggs from the pier, which led Dawn to laugh about receiving a text message from her father upon the birth of her baby, carefully pecked out in complete sentences, with no abbreviations. "It must have taken him an hour!" she laughed.

My wife said, "Doc will love to see these pictures," after she had seen them herself. "It shows that we are a real family."


This is a working vacation, so I have been editing the paper from my hotel room and conducting interviews by phone from the beach. I also have been proofing the news pages by PDF, so I can upload this week's front page and jump pages!

Page 1A, March 19, 2009 edition

Page 6A, March 19, 2009 edition

Page 7A, March 19, 2009 edition

Page design by the award-winning Mike Terhaar.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

All of the time in the world to play on the swing

Back by popular demand: my daughter Leyla, in this instance being propelled on a swing at Venice Beach by her mommy.

I am just starting to really familiarize myself with the greater Los Angeles area, over the course of a long working vacation. After many shorter visits over the years, mostly concentrated in Hollywood and Downtown, I am finally getting a chance to roam and go local, a little bit.

This means two important things to me. One is getting the lay of the land that a local has, a sense of what streets lead where and how long it will take to get from here to there and what alternate routes might work. Knowing the land, that is, not just the map or a set of directions.

The other is beginning to experience the flow of time as a local experiences it. The traveler, or at least this traveler, is always fraught with urgency. Got to see, got to do, got to be, because I won't get to be here for very long, and when I am gone, I am gone.

The local, on the other hand, has literally all of the time in the world to be here, because this is the part of the world where he experiences time.

I remember making this experiential transition as a chronic visitor to New York, before I moved to the city. There actually was a time when I would stare in amazement at people doing things like playing frisbee in the park. I would actually think, "You can play frisbee anywhere! You are in New York City! Go to the Met! Go to Coney Island! Go do something you can only do in New York!"

Of course, when you live in New York, everything you do is done in New York, so it is silly to always do only the things you can do in New York. Actually, it's impossible, since life involves so many mundane functions one must do, wherever one finds oneself at the moment.

All of this crossed my mind the other day on Venice Beach, when we took a break from scruffy people watching (of a sort that can only be done there) and playing in the surf (which one can only do on the coast) to pushing Leyla on a swing. Which you can do just about everywhere.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Anything that belongs to the ocean

We went to Venice Beach yesterday afternoon.

Being a musician with a thing for the past, with an affection for visiting the places where history has pivoted, I thought all afternoon about Jim Morrison singing Ray Manzarek "Crystal Ship" on this stretch of beach: the birth of The Doors.

My daughter, at age five, has her own vivid sense of the past, and her own fierce loyalty, which impresses me for a small child.

Still, being five and confronted by the immensity of the ocean and a beach that at least looked clean, she only wanted to play. So I played.

We threw rocks into the sea.

When we came upon dandelions or bits of seadrift while rummaging for rocks, we threw that into the sea, too.

"Anything that belongs to the ocean," Leyla said, "let's throw it into the ocean."

Monday, March 16, 2009

When careful plans radically exceed expectations

These are three views of the Pacific Ocean from the home of our new friends Anthony and Dhalma, and the couple themselves, relaxing while enjoying one of the views. This is what I officially call "not shabby" in a home that would have fetched $7 million before the real estate market flatlined.

It was rather stunning to be invited to their home nonchalantly - we were even invited to stay overnight, but declined - and then find this to be their home, at the end of a half-hour drive south in Los Angeles County, to the bottom of the Rancho Verdes Peninsula.

My surprise was only spoiled by the odd fact that I knew, when I surveyed a map to figure out the drive, that I had basically driven by their house two days before, when I picked up my friend Richard Derrick in San Pedro and then drove across the peninsula to pick up his friend Crane for lunch and UFO talk in Redondo Beach.

Still, when one makes new friends, and they are humble immigrants - he is from Nigeria, she is from Panama - and they invite you to their home, you really don't expect to walk into a movie star home. Move their house up the coast not very many miles to Malibu, and it literally would be a movie star home. Thankfully, for the moment, the peninsula is slightly off the radar of the super-rich, or as far off the radar as it is possible to get in L.A. County.

As I blogged at the time, we met Anthony and Dhalma last July during a harbor cruise in San Diego, when I was working on a travel story for a magazine in New York and they were celebrating a family reunion. We hit it off right away, with plenty to chat about, and they have four girls, which is extremely attractive for a family with only one girl who lunges at every opportunity to socialize with one of her own kind.

When we heard they live in the L.A. area, we took down their contact information, since Los Angeles is my favorite city and a place we connive to visit once a year, if we can, typically piggybacking on some work opportunity to defray the costs of travel. (A conference was our anchor, this time around.)

Companionship for our daughter, Leyla Fern, was the first motive. You can see her lurking in the shadows on a recliner in one of the ocean-view photos, but she was otherwise off the radar herself, disappeared into some distant corner of their large house, playing with one of her friends.

I asked Leyla is she had fun with her new friends. She said, rather indignantly, "They are not my new friends. They have always been my friends." Mission accomplished!

Every so often, things just work out as planned - or radically better than planned, with views of the Pacific Ocean, homecooked fish soup, and a bottle of good red wine.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Eleanor Roosevelt, "Water Bread & Beer" roughs

Bob Seger, of all people, said it best (in "Against the Wind"): "Deadlines and commitments; what to leave in, what to leave out."

For twenty years, I have been making music with the same set of people. Through many changes, there have been two constants - we tend to move around as individuals, and we are prolific. And, of course, we have grown up and aged, accumulating all sorts of adult commitments.

All of this has made it difficult to finish things. Being prolific, we start more things than we can possibly finish; and being dispersed geographically (the current coordinates are St. Louis, Nashville, Chicago, and Los Angeles), we are seldom all at the same place at the same time, so we have to be crafty to get anything done.

The same guys now form the core of two projects: Eleanor Roosevelt (a folk rock band) and Three Fried Men, which records settings of poetry as part of the larger Poetry Scores collective. The people are the same, and Eleanor Roosevelt also sets poems to music, but the difference is Three Fried Men's contributions go toward a larger project, a poetry score (a long poem set to music, as a complete album) that also includes the work of other artists.

Poetry Scores is a Missouri non-profit corporation with a board of directors that manages annual deadlines, which means Three Fried Men is induced every year to manage its other personal commitments to make a musical deadline.

Eleanor Roosevelt has lacked that spur, though we still have managed to release two records over the last few years, Crumbling in the Rain and Walker With His Head Down, both recorded in the early 1990s; and for more than ten years we have been accumulating songs toward a "new" record, Water Bread & Beer.

On Friday night, Matt Fuller and I sat down in his sister's toy-strewn living room in Hollywood and listened to rough mixes of all of the songs we could collect that we have earmarked for Water Bread & Beer. There were twenty songs, which now seems like too many for one release (mind you, our first recording, in 1989 under the band name Enormous Richard, was a thirty-song cassette).

So we narrowed it down to fifteen (a magic number for us) and put them in a provisional order. Here it is, with mp3s of rough mixes and some notes.

Free mp3s

1. "Watch a cloud"

2. "Children's rain song"

3. "Wheelchair"

4. "Me as a horse"

15. "Dry Bones"

All songs by Matt Fuller, Chris King, Lij & John Minkoff, with some lyrics adapted from other sources (see below).

Eleanor Roosevelt is: Matt Fuller (drums, guitars, banjo, vocals), Chris King (vocals, guitar), Lij (banjo, guitars, harmonica, drums, lobster pot percussion, vocals), Dave Melson (bass), John Minkoff (guitars). With: Adam Long (cello), Geoffrey Seitz (fiddle), Heidi Dean (vocals), Jacob Lawson (violins), Nate Shaw (drums) and Joe Esser (bass).

Recorded and rough-mixed by Lij, here and there all over the country (that's another story!).

Notes on lyrics
1. "Watch a cloud"

This is a description of what I saw in the clouds one day while lying flat on my back in a farm in Bald Knob, Kentucky.

2. "Children's rain song"

From a Moroccan Jewish children's song to summon rain.

3. "Wheelchair"

I made this one up.

4. "Me as a horse"

From Amos Tutuola's pioneeing Nigerian novel My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which Bowie and Eno also used as an album title.

5. "Pepper soup & local honey"

This is something of a recipe, based on advice given to Lij and me by the late Liberian raconteur and wise man Nymah Kumah.

6. "Tortilla"

I heard the chorus of this song sung in Spanish and then translated at a trade union meeting in St. Louis.

7. "Strangers & dangers"

I made this one up.

8. "Death & taverns"
From Gabriel Garcia Lorca's poem "Malaguena".

9. "Seeds & shit"

I made this one up. It's a disguised story about settling down in the big city with a woman.

10. "Girl from Central Maine"

I made this one up. Sad but true.

11. "Head rolling down a hill"

Mostly me, though the bridge - "we have time to bounce across yards of mud of days of rain" - is lifted from one of my favorite novels, The Beautyful Ones are Not Yet Born by Ghanaian writer A.K. Armah.

12. "Nothing feels better than doing wrong"

Mostly me, though based on a South African text.

13. "Pair of skunks"

I made this one up about a beautiful girl at a diner in New Jersey who served us on the road trip where much of this record was first germinated.

14. "James Brown Boulevard"

I made this one up. True story. I was living at the time in Augusta, Georgia, JB's hometown. There really is a scary street with this name there.

15. "Dry Bones"

Traditional, learned from Bascom Lamar Lunsford's version and recorded in a small A-frame cabin on his land along South Turkey Creek in Leicester, North Carolina.

But that gets into where this was all recorded (and how), which is another story. Knowing wordy me, I'll be back to tell it and to elaborate on all of these lyrical sources.


Image of brewer and baker from the City of Aberdeen (Scotland) site. I have Matt's drawings of the water, bread and beer that inspired the name of the album back home in St. Louis; I'm still in L.A.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Alvarado Street, an industry town artifact

I drove to our hotel in downtown Los Angeles very early this morning, after a late night working on music in Hollywood, in a house cattycorner to where Scarlett Johansson acted in many of the location scenes for Ghost World.

Industry towns, like Los Angeles or New York, have that advantage over the rest of the country. Their homely strip malls are more likely to have film credits than our strip malls, and their place names pack unearned name magic in the national psyche, because we have encountered them so many times in so many cultural products.

Like, I was startled, driving home to the hotel, when I passed through Alvarado Street. What is Alvardo Street to me, or me to Alvarado Street? Why would I care to cross it? My primal associations, personally, are with streets that have parocial names like Nameoki (in Granite City) or South Grand (in St. Louis). To know them, you would have to have been there; they are not going to find you in a song.

Not so for Alvarado Street. The great rock siongwriter Warren Zevon either knew a heroin merchant who worked it, or knew someone who knew a heroin merchant who worked it, or just traveled the street all the time, saw a chicken stand there one day, and liked the music in the names enough to work with them.

For whatever reason, he wrote and sang, I have heard countless hundreds of times, the lines,

Well, I pawned my Smith-Corona
And I went to meet my man
He hangs out down on Alvardo Street
By the Pioneer Chicken stand,
and as a result, Alvardo Street is a mythic place to me. On a previous trip to L.A., I even banged a left onto Alvarado and drove up and down it for a few miles, in futile search of a Pioneer Chicken sign.

And all because Los Angeles is an industry town, so its local materials - place names, images, atmosphere - have been recycled by countless songwriters, like Zevon, who called L.A. home.

As for me, I noticed the Alvarado Street sign early this morning because I was looking for the pupuseria where I ate a couple of days ago. I want to hit it again, before we leave this part of town (for a cheaper hotel, now that my wife's conference is concluded). And there was my little pupuseria, on the corner of Wilshire and Alvarado.

That is how the cultural primacy of the industry town gets perpetuated. Now I want to write a song or poem or scene in a novel that has someone eating pupusas on Alvarado Street. Mine is the fate of all the dreamers from the backwaters who pull into Los Angeles or New York and can't resist inhabiting their local myths.

At the same time, I don't think I will ever lose my own personal romance for the backwaters, for the name magic in "South Grand" or "Cicero's": the places we made for ourselves, in our own dreams, the ones we keep for ourselves because no one else wants them but us.


G.G. Allin covered "Carmelita," the Zevon song with Alvarado Street in it, though he messed around with the lyrics. Archive.org has a 1990 live performance by Zevon himself (that takes a minute to download).

Photo of Alvardo Street from somebody's Flickr site (my camera isn't working).

Friday, March 13, 2009

March Madness in L.A. with a dude in a Cougar suit

For the last few days my family has been staying in a hotel in downtown Los Angeles that is serving as host hotel for the PAC-10 championships in girls basketball.

Everywhere one goes, there is a gaggle of young women (they look like girls) with the staggered dimensions of a basketball team: one thin skyscraper, two very tall girls with more bulk, two shorter girls with the fleet vibe of very fast people.

One also sees their coaches, tall, intense adults. I saw one such woman being interviewed in the lobby bar. She looked like a taller, more athletic Robin Carnahan, blonde and alert. I saw one such man on the escalator this morning. He coaches at USC, where the girls' games are being played - a bit of an unfair home-court advantage, I should think.

Human nature suggests that somewhere around here blowout parties are going down where these tall girls are sneaking drinks and perhaps romance - having once been a boy athlete, that is my expectation - but if so, that is deeply covert. All I see are tall and lithe people in hoodies, with farway eyes that suggest deep interior concentration. I fancy I can see plays and defensive schemes dancing on the insides of their eyelids.

Yesterday, the girls on the Washinton State Cougars team exited, as a group, to board the team bus and depart for their game. The Washington State cheerleading unit lined up outside the hotel to zing the streets of Los Angeles with school spirit. A fragment of a marching brand blasted the chilly late winter air with brass colors. Somebody in a Cougar suit did his thing.

Then the atheletes crossed the small space from hotel to bus, and the Cougar and the hornplayers and the cheerleaders bubbled, for a moment, with leftover encouragement, before following the tall girls in the hoodies with the hooded eyes onto the vehicle and disappearing down Wilshire Boulevard.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Officer whistleblower

Suspended Police Officer Scott Tillis listens as his attorney Chet Pleban questions former Police Chief Joe Mokwa under oath last Wednesday.
Photo by Wiley Price


Scott Tillis looked into suspicious towing operations – and is paying for it

By Chris King
Of the St. Louis American

On February 15, 2008, Police Officer Scott Tillis woke to complaints from several of his neighbors in the O’Fallon Place Apartments on the near North Side.

Four of his neighbors – all African-American, like Tillis – had had their cars towed away by S&H Towing the night before.

As a city cop with slightly less than seven years on the force, Tillis was required to live in the city – presumably so he would be accessible to the public he was sworn to protect, such as his neighbors.

His neighbors wanted to know why multiple tow trucks had towed multiple cars from the same apartment complex the night before – and why they couldn’t get their cars back from S&H.

So though Tillis was not on duty and worked in a district that polices a different part of the city, he investigated their complaints, as he testified last Wednesday at a police board trial.

Tillis’ trial was scheduled after he had endured 11 months of unpaid suspension for alleged insubordination – and it started on the date of the 2009 mayoral primary.

Tillis testified that he first went to Central Patrol, to see if there had been a major drug sweep or some other police effort on February 14 that would explain a wholesale towing of vehicles. The dispatcher told him there was not.

This was even more surprising, as he began to check tow logs – and discovered that more than a dozen cars had been towed from his immediate neighborhood in a roughly three-hour spree, all authorized by the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.

As Tillis checked the entries, he saw that one driver for S&H, Matt Sexton, had signed off on all of the tows. This increased his suspicion, since multiple tow trucks had been reported and it was scarcely possible for one driver to have done that many tows in that short span of time.

Tillis testified that Sexton did not return a call, so he went to interview him at the tow yard on February 16, 2008. Eventually, Tillis spoke with someone identified as Sexton’s supervisor, a former city cop named Greg Shepard.Tillis testified that Shepard asked if he was from Internal Affairs, and when Tillis said he was not, Shepard told him he did not have to answer his questions.

Tillis testified that Shepard told him, “I’m with Joe,” apparently implying a privileged relationship with Police Chief Joe Mokwa.

Mokwa testified under oath that he has known Shepard for 20 years. Mokwa also testified that as police chief he called Shepard once a week and personally visited him at S&H Towing “about six times a year.”

Mokwa also testified that he at times called Shepard personally, as police chief, regarding vehicles that had been towed.

Tillis testified that Shepard told him to get off his property – and said he would call Internal Affairs and tell them about Tillis’ visit.

Someone answering the phone at Metropolitan/S&H Towing yesterday said Shepard would not be in. The call was transferred to another man, who said he had no comment and refused to give his name.

The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department said it does not comment on personnel matters.

‘In cahoots’

Tillis testified that he then went to Internal Affairs, where Sgt. Sheila Person told him they would not investigate the suspiciously towed vehicles.

He testified that he then approached his own command, Lt. Christopher Smith, to tell him he thought something suspicious was going on and they should get a search warrant. He testified that Smith told him he would not authorize the manpower and they would not investigate.

Tillis testified that the next day, February 17, 2008, Lt. Smith told him the department had decided to investigate a report against Tillis of an improperly handled call – though the alleged incident had transpired on December 24, 2007.

Tillis’ attorney, Chet Pleban, had Mokwa examine this incident report, made on January 9, 2008 and confirm that it was unsigned.

It would take another two months for this two-month-old incident to result in disciplinary action, when Tillis was suspended without pay on April 17, 2008.

“I posit that the charges against my client were a pretense to getting rid of this officer,” Pleban argued at the board trial – “a pretense because he rocked the boat regarding S&H Towing.”

After Tillis’ suspension, it took 11 months for his case to come to trial. During that time, Tillis has seen a series of investigative pieces by Jeremy Kohler and Joe Mahr of the Post-Dispatch report a widespread pattern of suspicious towing and profiting off of citizen vehicles by Metropolitan/S&H Towing, much like what he had been investigating on behalf of his neighbors.

The IRS, FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office have seized evidence from Metropolitan/S&H Towing.

Mokwa himself resigned July 25, 2008. Mokwa drew the scorn of Pleban when he testified under oath that the towing scandal had no bearing on his resignation. His retirement package included paid legal fees for cases involving the towing scandal.

Tillis, however, was told by his own command and by Internal Affairs that the St. Louis Police Metropolitan Department had no interest in investigating what seemed to a veteran cop like a suspicious towing scam involving its own towing vendor.

Since Tillis was ordered to surrender his gun and badge last April, he has been forbidden from investigating the matter.

Meanwhile, at least one of his neighbors, Nicole Henry, has her car back from S&H Towing, though she said it cost her $500.

“They were giving me the runaround,” she said of S&H, “and the fees just kept adding up.”
She said the car was towed for illegal parking, though she said it wasn’t parked illegally.

The license plates had expired, though that is not grounds for having her vehicle towed.

Asked why she thought her vehicle was towed and why she had to pay $500 to S&H to get it back, Henry said, “They are in cahoots, trying to get money.”

There are no further hearings scheduled in the Tillis case. From here, according to the police department, both attorneys will present written briefs to the hearing officer, Kurt Cummiskey, who then has 30 days to present a report to the police board.

In the meantime, Police Officer Scott Tillis remains suspended without pay.


This story will appear tomorrow in the March 12, 2009 edition of The St. Louis American.