Thursday, April 30, 2009

He had eight dollars to his name and he sent us one

This is the text of a handwritten letter I received at The St. Louis American last week. It came enclosed with a Western Union transfer for $1.


I was released from prison on 4-21-09. I was given The St. Louis American on 4-22-09 by a friend and am in love with your publication. My first exposure led me to seek out more issues of your paper. I was amazed to find out that your paper is free!

Upon being released from prison I was given $8.00. I have decided to donate one of the dollars to The St. Louis American. It is one of the best uses of a dollar that I could ever imagine!

In closing, keep doing what you do. I thank you in advance for your great work that will grace your future papers or publications. Thanks!!!

Donnell Malik Sims


Something like this makes up for a lot of the other things that going into editing a newspaper that makes enemies, sometimes powerful enemies, and sometimes dangerous ones.


Image from Convict Gaming.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

On the blog of the Rolling Stone dot com

Rolling Stone published a story by me on its website today. It's a brief entertainment news piece about the forthcoming record by Before Cars, a band fronted by Chad Channing, who was the drummer on Nirvana's Sub Pop debut Bleach.

As someone who used to write for The New York Times, I know how you can make a friend for life by giving someone positive coverage in a media venue with name magic. Unfortunately, the guy at the indie label putting out Chad's record went from very helpful to rather elusive when I informed him that I had an assignment for the website, which may or may not get parlayed into a feature for the print magazine, rather than a firm print assignment.

Kind of funny. On the one hand, we all know that the internet is killing print media, and many of us seek much of the information we want and need online. On the other hand, "only on the website" remains in our parlance as an admission of inferior coverage on the part of writers, subjects, publicists - probably even the advertisers whose collective decision-making is killing print as a medium!

Though of course I would like to add a physical copy of Rolling Stone to my clip file (along with print copies of The Times, Washington Post, The Nation magazine, Harvard's black studies journal, TriQuarterly and The Los Angeles Weekly, to name-drop a few), I think I'll celebrate my online-only publication by adapting something my friend Paul Jensen once said.

Someone had said something disparaging in Paul's presence about "fake tits". Paul wasn't going along with that stuff. He said, "The only fake tits are the ones you can't see and feel."

In that spirit, if a publication has the name "Rolling Stone" on it and the writer's fee headed your way is coming in the form of a check made out by someone who works for Rolling Stone, then it's fair to conclude that you have, in fact, been published by Rolling Stone.


Don't forget to go read that there story of mine on the Rolling Stone website. Now that it's out on digital newstands everywhere, I'll mine my notes and write more about Chad here. A very nice man!

Before Cars has a MySpace page. That's where I got the picture.

All Coltrane, no borders on KDHX Community Media

Beginning April 26, and running for five consecutive Sundays, Joshua Weinstein will be presenting the acclaimed radio documentary Tell Me How Long Trane’s Been Gone on 88.1 FM in St. Louis and worldwide.

Twenty years in the making, this 5-hour audio masterpiece — a thrilling kaleidescope of rare interviews, reminiscences, music selections and commentary — analyzes and celebrates the creative genius of John Coltrane.

First broadcast in 2001, Steve Rowland’s prize-winning Tell Me How Long Trane’s Been Gone is particularly poignant today with the recent loss of many who were interviewed, including the late Max Roach, Dr. Art Davis, Alice Coltrane, Elvin Jones, and Sekou Sundiata.

This week’s episode (Hour 1), entitled “What Was,” features rare recorded interviews with Charlie Parker and John Coltrane; Coltrane’s first-ever recorded performance, in 1946 on alto sax, while with the Navy in Hawaii; interviews with Sonny Rollins, Dizzy Gillespie, McCoy Tyner, Steve Lacy, Rashied Ali and numerous other musical titans; and a fascinating walking tour of the 1940s jazz scene in Philadelphia, where the young John Coltrane began his musical journey.

Each of five one-hour segments will air Sundays at 10:30 p.m. (CST) beginning this past Sunday, April 26 and continuing through May 24, during the first hour of All Soul, No Borders. Programs will be archived on the ASNB page (linked above) for 2 weeks after each airing in case you miss one or what to hear it again.


Image of John Coltrane, Shadow Wilson, Thelonius Monk, and Ahmed Abdul-Malik at the Five Spot Café in New York in 1957 by Don Schlitten/courtesy of Blue Note.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

POTUS #41: George H.W. Bush by Enormous Richard

One of many surprises in Max Wallace and Ian Halperin's most recent investigative book about the death of Kurt Cobain is that Cobain's best man and best friend, Dylan Carlson, was a self-described Republican admirer of George Herbert Walker Bush.

Asked by Wallace and Halperin to give examples of how he differed from his dead friend, Carlson said, "Well, for one thing, I'm a Republican. I was a big fan of [the elder] George Bush; I liked what he stood for. Kurt couldn't stand him. He really liked Clinton."

In other instances of his questionable judgment, Carlson reportedly introduced Cobain to heroin and admittedly purchased the shotgun used to kill him.

Carlson always has insisted that Cobain was not suicidal, which is why he didn't hesitate to buy his gun-loving friend a gun. Read Wallace and Halperin's book Love & Death for why Cobain's other guns had been confiscated and how that fits into speculation that Cobain was set up to be murdered in a staged suicide.

Carlson's reported admiration for Bush #41 reminded me of the song I wrote and recorded with my first band Enormous Richard, "New World Order Man," which qualifies for my POTUS series of presidential portraits.

I am somewhat proud to have recorded evidence from back in 1991 of my name-checking Dick Cheney, then Bush #41's secretary of defense and nowhere near the household name (and emblem of evil) he would become as running mate and VP for Bush #43.

The lyrics are mostly clear and self-evident, except for the last line, which is garbled so I will spec it out here:

New World Order Man
He's as old as Eve and Adam

Free mp3

"New World Order Man"
(Chris King, Richard Skubish)
Enormous Richard
From Enormous Richard Answers All Your Questions

More in this series

POTUS #8: Martin Van Buren, by Bad TV
POTUS #14: Franklin Pierce, by John Morris
POTUS #17: Andrew Johnson, by William Tonks
POTUS #18: Ulysses S. Grant, by Waterloo
POTUS #26: Theodore Roosevelt, by Tim McAvin
POTUS #40: Ronald Reagan, by P. Mirkin & The Bodags
POTUS #43: George W. Bush, by Steve Allain


Dylan Carlson's band Earth has a MySpace page. Happy Earth Day!

Picture of Bush landing after parachuting at an advanced age by Associated Press.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Anything but an error, and just the opposite of fatal

Late last night gave me several reasons to feel good to be alive. Here is one.

I was getting out of my car in the South Grand neighborhood to see Dave Stone's trio at Mangia. In the car, I had been listening to the extraordinary 2005 solo record by Jack Endino, the legendary Seattle producer and guitarist in Skin Yard and Kandi Coded. Endino had given me that record, Permanent Fatal Error, and several others when I visited with him last Saturday evening at his Soundhouse Recording studio.

Endino took the call. He was in the studio, but said he was comp'ing drum tracks and had a minute to talk. I thanked him effusively for his record, the Kandi Coded demo, The Funhouse Comp Thing punk anthology and the test pressing of Chad Channing's debut record with his band Before Cars.

These are all amazing records - I will return to all of them, and to my visit with Endino, on this blog - and I felt particularly honored to receive them as gifts from the man who produced them (and so many other great records, including the earliest Nirvana recordings).

That was nothing to me, though, compared to what came out of Endino next, after we had finished talking about the music.

"I saw the blog about your daughter - that was hilarious!" he said.
He had to mean my post yesterday about the tot's despair when she pushed me to look at the visitor numbers for her new blog and I discovered that I had been her sole visitor that day.

I loved the thought of Jack Endino interacting with Leyla's blog, and I had the distinct sense he was rooting for her. I very much like that sort of thing, when artistic appreciation gives way to an ordinary human connection. Makes me glad to be alive and doing what I'm doing.


The Endino MySpace page currently has a nice selection of tracks from Permanent Fatal Error. It rocks so damn hard! Picture of Edino by my friend Ranee Ruble in his studio last Saturday.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

My daughter, the blogger, not liking the numbers

Yesterday was a gloomy day in the publishing empire that is our household.

It wasn't the newspaper I edit, The St. Louis American - we put to bed a big fat strong paper shortstaffed on deadline.

It wasn't my book publishing ambitions - after more than a year of inactivity, an old friend recently showed interest in helping my novel find a home.

It wasn't my dwindling freelance business - after months with no sidework, I landed an assignment from Rolling Stone to write about Chad Channing, the Nirvana drummer before Dave Grohl who has a great debut record coming out in June.

It wasn't my blogs - I am having fun with them, and for whatever reason people are reading them, more than I expected.

The problem was with the new blog in the family, the baby blog, my daughter's blog.

She asked to start one when we were in Los Angeles last month on a working vacation. Not something I would have chosen for her to do at age six, but I didn't mind helping her set one up. I didn't see any reason not to add a stat counter to track her visitors.

Then I made what is starting to look like a bad call. I explained the stat counter and showed her how to see how many people had looked at her blog and even where they live. She really got a kick out of that, like pretty much every other blogger.

Then, alas, she started to worry about her numbers.

"Daddy, how many people looked at my blog today?"

This is not such a horrible question to ask when there have been ten visitors, even seven. She is discouraged, sure. It doesn't help that our blogs are linked on Stat Counter and she can see on the bar graph how many, many more visitors my blogs got that day.

But even ten visitors is something to go on, even seven. Even five.

But yesterday was a bad day.

"Daddy, how many people looked at my blog today?"

I looked at the blog. Then, I looked at the stat counter.

There had only been one visitor: me. Her dad.

Of course, that is how it should be. There are just not that many compelling reasons for anyone other than her family members to follow the blog of a six year old girl.

But, still, that's my kid, and she is watching her numbers, so I figured I should post something up here about her blog and see if she wins over any new readers.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Endino: "I don't name them, just record them"

I would have thought I was an oddball, thinking of Jack Endino (in terms of what I cherish the most in my own record collection) more as "the guy who did Up In It by The Afghan Whigs" rather "the guy who did the first Nirvana demos and Bleach."

But, in fact, this guy has been all over the map, literally and sonically, and long after Nirvana he keeps setting musical standards that keep bringing him different kinds of new bands wanting him to do his thing.

Endino kind of stumbled onto this theme as we were chatting at his Soundhouse Recording studio in Seattle on Saturday when I asked him what all he had lined up.

"Next Wednesday I have 3 Inches of Blood, they're from Vancouver, British Columbia. Then, in June, I am doing a record for Skeleton Witch," he said.

"I guess they are both metal. Two years ago I did a record for a band called High on Fire that was very heavy - actually, I'd call it stoner rock, doomy - but the record did well and, as a result, I got a lot of metal bands."

At that point he started to warm to his theme.

"It's like I did a grunge band that did well" (an understatement of the century for the producer who launched Nirvana!), "so I got a lot of grunge bands. I did a punk band that did well, so I got a lot of punk bands. I did Hot Hot Heat, so I got a lot of new wave pop," Endino said.

"That's how a self-employed producer's career goes. But it's all rock & roll to me. It's all guitar, bass, and drums. I just try to make them sound like they sound when they play live ... only better."

I don't have the patience to count the titles on his discography, but let's just say Endino has made a lot of records for a lot of bands (in twelve different countries, by his count). But on a Saturday night in Seattle, freshly home from a tour of his own - opening for Turbonegro, one band, it seems, he has not produced - he still generates enthusiasm rifling off their names (which often require careful alternate spellings).

"Last year, I recorded a band named Valient Thorr - that's 'Valient' with an 'e' and 'Thorr with two 'r's'. Yes, that is how it is spelled - I don't name them, just record them," he said.

"They have a lot of fans in Seattle and all over the world. They have these 'Thorriors' fan clubs. Google it, and the number of webpages that comes up is disturbing. I was amazed at how many fans they have. But the record sold well, and it helped my career."

His cell phone buzzed and rattled continually with calls and messages, as we spoke. After checking one, he said, "That's Early Man. The band is freaking out over the mastering job on a record I mixed. It's vintage old-school, like the first Metallica record, aesthetically the kind of thing I could do in my sleep. It's like we're in a dim place. in a cave."

In a dim place, in a cave. Or in a cinder block studio, behind a house on 15th Avenue Northwest in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle, where I hope Jack Endino's discography just gets longer and longer and longer, full of more and more names only he and a few nameless Thorriors the world over can spell.

Third in a series of posts that shook out of my reconnecting this weekend with Endino, whose previous band Skin Yard slept on the couches and floors in the house I rented on The Hill in St. Louis, ca. 1989.

Also in this series:

Endino nears a decimal anniversary for "Bleach"
Up against it where Endino recorded Nirvana


The gig posters are from the tour Endino's band Kandi Coded had just finished with Turbonegro. Got to love a living legend who comes home from the road with gis g posters, like a kid fresh from his first road swing ....

Endino nears a decimal anniversary for "Bleach"

When I stopped by to see Jack Endino at his Soundhouse Recording studio in Seattle on Saturday night, he was fresh off the road.

More properly, traveling at his current level, he was just off the plane, having performed the night before at The Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. That was the last gig of the tour for his band Kandi Coded, which had been out for three weeks in support of Turbonegro.

Endino had been out on tour in Europe on April 5, which marked the 15th anniversary of the death of perhaps the most influential musician he has yet produced: Kurt Cobain.

"Fifteen years doesn't mean as much as a decimal," Endino said, when I asked if any reporters had tracked him down for a reaction. "I didn't hear a peep."

He expects and is almost certain to get a different response on June 15, which will mark a decimal for Cobain's band, Nirvana: the 20th anniversary of the release of Bleach, their debut album. Sub Pop is readying an archival reissue with bonus tracks, which Endino has been laboring over.

"The bonus material has some live tracks I mixed down a few weeks ago, some stuff that people haven't heard, the Bleach lineup with Chad (Channing) on drums," Endino said. "It's surprisingly good. Chad was a better drummer than people realize. It's actually pretty tight."

I picked his brain about Bleach a bit. He didn't want to retell any oft-told tales. "It took me thirty hours to make the record," he said. "I hardly remember any of it." But he did brighten at one memory.

"When I met Iggy Pop, he said, 'Oh yeah, you made the good Nirvana record,'" Endino said with the big, bright smile that alternates, on his face, with his deep thinking listening scowl.

"I met him backstage at a show here in Seattle. I had been introduced to Iggy as 'the guy who made the first Nirvana record'. Iggy was effusive, he was thrilled to pieces. He went on about how much he loved that Bleach album - 'except that one pop song'!"

Second in a series of posts that shook out of my reconnecting this weekend with Endino, whose previous band Skin Yard slept on the couches and floors in the house I rented on The Hill in St. Louis, ca. 1989.

Also in this series:

Up against it where Endino recorded Nirvana


Photo of Endino with his listening scowl by my friend Ranee Ruble, who accomanied me to his studio.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Up against it where Endino recorded Nirvana

This is me in front of what Jack Endino has described as a "triangular, wedge-shaped building with a door at the pointy end and an air conditioner above the door, on your left as you are driving down Leary Way" into Fremont from Ballard.

Endino thinks the building is now used by Death Cab for Cutie as rehearsal and storage space. For a number of busy years ending in the summer of 1991, Endino ran this space as Reciprocal Recording studio. It has a spot in rock music history, this oddly shaped little structure. As I just added to the Wikipedia entry for the Fremont neighborhood,

A wedge-shaped building on the diagonal street Leary Way that cuts across Fremont from the adjacent Ballard neighborhood was once home to legendary Seattle producer Jack Endino's Reciprocal Recording studio, where he recorded (among many other records) Nirvana's first demos and the band's debut on Sub Pop Records, Bleach.
I like Bleach just fine - considerably more than Nirvana's breakout record, Nevermind - but this building is hallowed ground to me because of something else Endino recorded here: The Afghan Whigs' record on Sub Pop, Up In It, which rates as one of my very favorite rock records, ever.

The photo was taken by my old friend and former colleague Ranee Ruble as we drove from a meeting with Endino at his current place in Ballard, Soundhouse Recording, to a local gig in Fremont at High Dive.

At the High Dive, a band up from Portland (where Ranee lives) had to endure an insult against his town by one of the local Seattle bands on the gig. I was so appalled that I gave the front man from the Portland band, New York Rifles, the only thing of value I had on me: the address to this historic little nook from rock history. I expect to see them posed up against this wedge one day on the band's Flickr site.

Videos of note

Three songs from Bleach at the bassist's mom's house.
"Negative Creep" live at a record store the year Bleach was released (1989).
The sublime "Retarded" from Up In It live in St. Louis (!) in 1992.
The equally sublime "Hated" (also on Up In It) from the same show.

First in a series of posts that shook out of my reconnecting this weekend with Endino, whose band Skin Yard slept on the couches and floors in the house I rented on The Hill in St. Louis, ca. 1989.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The clinical sons and daughters of Jack Wennberg

Part of my responsibility in accepting a fellowship to attend the 2009 annual conference of the mighty Association of Health Care Journalists was to report on one of the conference sessions for the association website.

Though this is pretty different from my usual fare, I am double-dipping and posting here because I do think the panel, Shared Decision Making, is of public interest - at least to anyone who thinks they might one day go to the doctor.

"This must be gratifying to Jack Wennberg," panel moderator Gary Schwitzer (publisher of mused at the end of the probing Q&A session following the panelists' presentations.

"He couldn't get his work pubished for thirty years. He was laughed at, considered a pariah. Finally, he had to publish in Science, which is not exactly a standard journal for variations in health care."

Our panelists certainly were the methodological and clinical sons and daughters of Jack Wennberg. Using Medicare data, his Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care demonstrated striking variations in the kind of care patients receive - and the resulting costs - depending simply on where they live.

As it has been applied, Wennberg's pioneering research revealed a large number of medical procedures where there is no clinical consensus as to the course of treatment. In response, there is movement to educate - and mandate - physicians to include their patients in the decision-making process.

One panelist, David Arterburn, M.D., M.P.H. (assistant investigator, Group Health Cooperative), drew a clear distinction.

On the one hand, you have something like the prescription for a heart attack survivor to take aspirin daily. The treatment is not invasive, has very little risk and significant established benefits, and there is a wide consensus among physicians to make this prescription to someone with this condition.

On the far other side of the spectrum are the conditions and cases where shared decision-making becomes imperative. Each panelist at one time or another brainstormed a partial list, that included, overall, most surgeries to replace joints, back and spinal care, prostate and early-stage breast cancers, uterine fibroids and angina.

In such cases, Arterburn said, "there is a wide, gray zone in the evidence base where patient preferences really do matter, because physicians have a wide range in which to practice."

Aterburn, like most of the panelists, is associated with either the passage or the implementation of new legislation in the State of Washington pertaining to shared decision-making. In the order they spoke:

* Ben Moulton, J.D., M.P.H. (executive director, American Society of Law, Medicine & Ethics), coauthored a Harvard Law Review article that was used as a source in crafting the legislation in Washington, and he testified at a hearing. He said Wennberg's research taught him that "when there is more than one treatment pathway and the choice is terribly personalized, we do a terrible job of giving information about risks and benefits to patients so they can make an intelligent decision."

* Karen Merrikin, J.D. (executive director, public policy, Group Health Cooperative) has been central to implementing the new law within Group Health Cooperative, a nonprofit health care system based in Seattle that serves more than half a million consumers in Washington and Idaho. As she said, "Whether you have a masectomy or lumpectomy shouldn't vary depending on where you live."

* Arterburn has been a key investigator in collecting the same sort of data within Group Health Cooperative that the Dartmouth Atlas collected nationally - and then in educating physicians once their regional data replicated Wennberg's disturbing findings. As he said, "The evidence pushed our senior leadership and physicians to say, 'What is going on here? People in Seattle and Tacoma don't have different knees and hips.'"

The panel also included Benjamin S. Wilfond, M.D. (director, Treuman Katz Center for Pediatric Bioethics, Seattle Children's Hospital), who was essentially a refugee from another panel that got spliced onto this one.

It seems that panel would have probed issues of shared decision-making in the context of the Ashley case, where the loving family of a child with severe developmental disabilities - a "Pillow Angel," since she is able to do little but remain where she is positioned, usually on a pillow - elected to pursue invasive surgery on their daughter to limit her growth, in an effort to forestall pain for her and to keep her care manageable for the family.

A blog entry by her parents sparked a national controversy over Ashley's care, and Wilfond participated in the public process to study her story in an attempt to arrive at a consensus for what is appropriate and compassionate in such severe cases.

Without adequate time to develop his own example fully, Wilfond was most helpful in raising points about the work being done by Group Health Cooperative. A key element in their approach is the use of patient decision aids, typically interactive videos developed regarding procedures and conditions where this wide variation in care has been reported.

Wilfond wondered if the burden of a fair and balanced presentation of treatment options isn't being transferred away from the physician and onto patient decision aids and the companies that produce them.

The moderator Gary Schwitzer was a crucial voice in this discussion, since he helped to produce a number of the early patient study aids. He said he has never worked on a project with such an intensive "sweating of the issues" as went into making these presentations fair and balanced, reflecting a variety of treatment options and their outcomes as experienced by patients.

Schwitzer pointed to the Foundation for Informed Medical Decision Making for more information on this, and had its website up on the screen in the auditorium as the session came to a close.


Painting of Jack Wennberg by Bert Dodson from the Dartmouth Medical School alumni magazine.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Sarah Jones does health disparties in ten voices

I am attending my third annual conference thrown by the Association of Health Care Journalists. Each has featured its own blockbuster with wow factor.

In 2007 they managed to book Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to break the news of his statewide health care program for California. That later died on the vine, but it was a bold proposal and quite a coup to get the celebrity governor to make it in front of us.

Last year they had Secretary Mike Leavitt, head of Health and Human Services, break the national news of his department's new electronic health records systems. I know, it's not an exclusive with The Terminator, but for a roomfull of health journalists it had oomph. They also threw in Elizabeth Edwards as keynote speaker (before John boy's fall from grace).

This year they pulled in the wonderful writer and performer Sarah Jones to do her polyphonic monologue The Right to Care, which does health care disparities in ten voices: a homeless black woman, a Dominican college student, a Korean pharmacist, a hip-hop barber, a Salvadorean veteran of the U.S. military, a lesbian Indian physician, an Italian American Long Island nurse, a Blackfoot community organizer, a Somali Girl Scout from Minneapolis and an elderly Jewish widow.

The character shifts were done almost entirely with her voice. The only props were a few rows of chairs with jackets thrown over them. As she changed characters she changed jackets, and (at most) eyeglasses. The chairs also fit the drama, because the dramatic premise was that each of these characters was presenting before a Congressional subcomittee. The jackets were the various people waiting their turns to speak.

When they spoke, they spoke of pain and exclusion.

"When rich people start to feel it, it's a national crisis," said the homeless woman.

"I feel just like this one lucky Guinea pig in this experiment," the Dominican college student said about leaving her family's unhealthy urban environment for the safety of a university campus.

"We need to break this silence and help people of all backgrounds in a language they understand," said the Korean pharmacist.

"We are in as much danger from drive-thru windows as drive-by shootings," said the hip-hop barber (or, in his self-styled terms, the "folicular aesthetics counselor").

"I will fight for this country," said the Salvadorean veteran of the U.S. military - "and I pray there is no one inside this country who is trying to fight me back."

"It is this hospital system that is in need of intensive care," said the lesbian Indian physician.

"I don't want to waste your time with information your assistants may already keep on file," said the Blackfoot Indian community organizer.

"It was so white," the Somali Girl Scout says of ending up in Maine - "and there was snow, too!"

"You can't spend all those years of your life seeing that you will be taken care of when you get older, only to have it all taken from you," said the elderly Jewish widow.

I have not included in this catalogue a quote from the Italian American nurse from Long Island, whom (Jones said, in a Q&A following the performance) is modeled on a woman who once cared for Jones' mother when she was hospitalized. (Both of Jones' parents are physicians, by the way.)

This particular character is something of a ringer, thrown in to give voice to a different sort of American minority - the white reactionary. Jones said that when she has performed this piece before audiences lacking in diversity, this character gets all of the laughs.

The Long Island nurse drew some painful laughs from our diverse crowd of health care journalists.

"Look at Oprah! I mean, hello?" she said. "When will people be satisfied? Not even with a black president, apparently."

The show begins and ends with the homeless woman character, who is presented as the conscience of the piece - and who tried to be the conscience of the Congress. She challenges the elected officials she has been addressing, "If you can look into my face and you don't see yourself, somebody has stole your soul."

Jones first performed The Right to Care in 2005 after being commissioned to write it by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. She said said the foundation continues to subsidize her performances of the piece, which she books out of her home office.

I buttonholed her as she was leaving the conference hotel after the performance. I told her that I work for a newspaper in St. Louis published by an African-American oral surgeon. I explained that our paper also has a foundation that annually produces a Salute to Excellence in minority health. I told her she needs to come next year and perform this piece at our Health Salute.

"I'll do it," she said. "Contact me through my office."

I'll do that. I'll hold her to that. St. Louis needs to experience Sarah Jones and The Right to Care. I'll make sure we have that opportuntity.


Image of Sarah Jones got up as the homeless woman character from W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Where ya been, buddy? (Expletive) Nirvana!

Looks like I'll get to see Jack Endino this weekend while I am in Seattle for a journalism conference.

Jack produced the early Nirvana records and the Afghan Whigs classic Up In It, and for years has led the band Skinyard. I put up Skinyard in St. Louis many years ago, and looked up Jack more like eight years ago to fact-check something I wrote about that.

Today Jack can't remember my putting him up or his fact-checking the chapter of my music memoir, but he took me at his word and invited me to his studio on Saturday when I expressed interest in reconnecting with him.

Here is that chapter, from my unpublished memoir And Let Him Ply His Music: Adventures in Post-Punk and Amateur Folklore.


54. Fucking Nirvana

You have seen in bars how a drunk will scrawl the phone number of a taxi dispatcher on the wall by a payphone. It's a sort of traveler’s folklore, akin to the symbols hobos used to leave for one another on safehouses and water towers. A stick figure carved on a doorway, for example, meant: a kindhearted woman lives here. I am sure, in a similar spirit, the phone number for the Marconi house was written somewhere behind the bar at Cicero’s as a last resort for homeless bands.

My phone rang late one night—actually, very early one morning. It was Benny, the guy who booked Cicero’s.

"Sorry to call so late, man. I’ve got a band in here packing up that needs a place to stay. Skin Yard. Jack Endino’s band. My roommate has family in or I’d put them up."

"Benny," I said. "We’ve been sort of put on notice by the local mafia. I wish I was making that up. We’ve got to lay low for awhile."

"That’s all they’re after," Benny persisted with me, as he knew he could. "Laying low. Laying down. They’re from Seattle. They’ve been out more than a month. They’re wiped."

"Any druggies?"

"I doubt it very much."

"Send them," I said. "But send them with a little beer."

No primping is needed to prepare for a visiting rock band. Indie rock musicians travel with nothing but a battered bedroll and fantasies of a morning shower. The news that even one guy gets a couch is usually met with elation (followed by the complex calculus of whose turn it is to snag the couch).

Still, it was odd to have half an hour on my hands waiting for a band to arrive rather than a van trailing me home from Cicero’s. So, feeling idiotic, I ran around the place, beating couch cushions together and clearing musician-sized plots on the living room floor. I was trying to remember where I heard the name Jack Endino before. I knew I had seen it somewhere. By the time the band arrived, I had placed the name.

"You produced that great fucking Afghan Whigs record!" I greeted Endino.

He had produced Up In It, the tape of electric guitar symphonies on perpetual play in Theo’s jambox. As the other Skin Yard guys drifted off—not to bed, but to floor—I kept an exhausted Jack Endino awake for an hour of shop talk.

The Whigs had stayed at Theo’s house, and she had stories of their debauchery, but our paths had never crossed. I only knew them from my perch in a nest of Theo’s clothes, with avalanches of electric guitars tumbling out of a jambox cranked to capacity. I knew them with the awe of a fan.

Endino knew them with the cool of a technician. He talked about the challenges of keeping two busy guitar lines out of each other’s way, and diminishing the abrasiveness of a Telecaster played through a Marshall amp. The throb of two simultaneous, never ending, not quite sequenced guitar solos, which gave the record its symphonic quality and its dangerous edge of something about to explode, had been for Jack a technical challenge, a monster to stuff into a box.

"I did my thing," Endino said. "I made it rock. I tried not to think too hard about it."

I felt like a fan talking to an athlete. Jack tried not to think too hard about performing a difficult task. The urge to couch the magnificent result in language was my problem, not his.

"What about booze and drugs?" I wondered. "I know from mutual friends that the Whigs can party pretty hard."

"Clean and sober," Endino said. "Maybe a couple of beers before a vocal take to loosen up, but that’s it. We didn’t fuck around. We had a job to do. And no big budget to be burning up my time. I always see people at their best. No drama. No dirt. Just hard-working bands. I’ve never so much as seen Kurt open a beer in the studio."

"Kurt?" There was no Kurt in the Whigs.


"Who’s that?" I asked.

"Nirvana?" an exhausted Jack Endino said. "I did Bleach and their early demos."

I shrugged.

"Turn on the radio, man," he said. "You’re missing it."

I was definitely missing it, if it was on the radio. Growing up around St. Louis, I had long ago abandoned hope for the airwaves. KDHX and a few other stations on what Paul Westerberg reminded us was the "left of the dial", restored some of that lost hope. But, as a band, we never tuned in to the radio. On tour, everyone piled into Old Blue with a ratty bag of their own comfort music, the stuff that would keep them alert at the wheel in the middle of the night.

Through Matt, we all came to know the intricacies of Dinosaur Jr. (They used to be Dinosaur, by the way. You know. Paul told me.) The most peaceful image I have kept from our years on the road is spinning around in the van after hearing a Dinosaur Jr guitar solo reach its crushingly loud crescendo, wanting to share the moment with Matt, only to find him dissolved into the seatback, a smile spread across his face, sunlight dappling his shut eyes.

I drove the Birthplace to Chicago for one of our shows that fall. I wanted to have my own vehicle to kick around the city afterward. I caught Dinosaur Jr. at one of the larger Chicago venues. That show provided a moment of revelation — not the music, which sounded turgid in a big room, but the crowd.

There were so damn many of us. I really had no idea. As I stood there in my Chuck Taylors, bluejeans, obscure band t-shirt, and ballcap flipped backwards, I surveyed thousands and thousands of other people in Chuck Taylors, bluejeans, obscure band t-shirts, and ballcaps flipped backwards. The loneliness of my post-punk nunnery now seemed like a dream. This music was on the march.

One final memory of life before the flood, the flood of grunge. I was sitting in an empty bar in Charleston, West Virginia. Traveling musicians spend a lot of time sitting in empty bars at twilight. Even when the house is packed by show time, it is always empty when you arrive. So you read the local paper, try to resist starting on a pre-sound check drunk, take turns watching the gear while the other guys walk around the slacker strip. And you get subjected to the very latest in very loud rock music, courtesy of the bar staff.

On this evening in Charleston, one muscly barback kept dipping into the tip jar and feeding the jukebox. Every time, he played the same song, a piece of post-punk with dramatic breaks and growled lyrics rendered completely inaudible by speaker distortion. I began to wonder who in the hell I was hearing, over and over and over again.

Finally, I grabbed the barback on one of his trips to the basement for cases of beer.

"Who’s this?" I shouted.

"Who’s this?" he shouted back. "Where ya been, buddy? Fucking Nirvana!"


Endino image from

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Details of the mysterious tattoo I will never get

Tonight I was rummaging in very old emails looking for something else, when I came upon these images kindly sent to me by a very nice friend of a friend. I requested them to share with my buddy Chris Dingwell, a decorated tattooist of Portland, Maine, back when I still harbored the fantasy that I would one day get a tattoo.

This is what I wanted to have tattooed, probably on my upper left arm. Probably not all of the figure; probably only the imagery around the torso - the spectacular vision of what I take to be a frog, upside down on a woman's belly with (I take it) its tongue lapping at her sex.

I'm not into bestiality, in case you wondered, nor particularly kinky in any respect. But I do have utmost respect for the power and mystery of sex, and in particular female sexuality, and this image speaks to me of those mysteries in ways I can't comprehend and could never express.

That's one reason I would like to have it tattooed onto my body. I can confidently project a lifetime of looking at this image without ever figuring out everything it has to teach me.

I also have a thing for frogs. Oddly, for a blogging exhibitionist who has been carrying on about sexuality, I consider it private why I am into frogs. I will say that I follow American Indian spiritual beliefs and that Frog has been identified as my totem animal and this connection has been ratified in my life over and over again.

Also, the appraiser told the kindly friend of a friend that this figure is standing on a whale head. I didn't get that at a glance, but it connects with me as well. Whale also was identified as a totem animal for me, though I am awed and overwhelmed by that connection and probably hide and flee from it. Frog seems more my size, more my style.

The origin of the piece was identified as "Northwest coast female figure, possibly Salish." I happen to be headed out to old Salish country tomorrow, for a journalism conference in Seattle. Having stumbled upon these cherished images tonight, I will remain open to learning more about them, maybe even more about the Salish people, while I am visiting their old stomping grounds.

It's not the highest form of scholarship, but I started tonight with good old Wikipedia, and I really like the succinct summary of Salish beliefs:

Belief in guardian spirits and transmutation between human and animal were widely shared in myriad forms. The relations of soul or souls, the lands of the living and the dead, were complex and mutable.
That definitely describes my religion.

It's a different story, and a long one, how I came upon this sculpture and why it stuck with me all of these years - and yet another story why I will probably never get a tattoo. Though that story is short: because somebody who looks at my body more than I do begged me not to get one.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Hell is a timeshare pitch in Branson on Easter

It was a pretty low circle of hell: Yesterday I sat through a timeshare sales pitch in Branson, Missouri - on Easter Sunday!

My wife is not from this country, and she got suckered in by some nice lady trying to sell her discounted tickets to ghastly musical theater shows at an IHOP. I was not at the counter with her at the time to translate from apparent smalltown niceties to guerilla marketing sleaze.

I would say, "At least we didn't end up listening to corny one-liners or flaccid bluegrass or watching Chinese acrobats," but all of those things would have taken up less time and been much more entertaining than the sleazy thing we did sit through.

I wish she would have just bought the stupid theater tickets. There is a stain of economic sleaze and disengenuous hucksterism on my soul that may never go away.

I have been a lucky guy, up until now. I was born and raised resourceful and determined enough to avoid much of what I wished to avoid in this world. I have always been ready to call bullshit "bullshit," regardless of consequences, and had the gumption to walk away from fools or evil people while their mouth was still moving and producing sounds, ostensibly for my benefit.

I have managed to cover St. Louis politics for three years without making any deals with the devil or convincing myself that this is just the way it is and I might as well play along for some fantasy of a greater good. I will preserve my soul.

But this one, I had to sit still for, because I didn't sign up for it, but the signing up for it also signed me up for it. And the very next thing I had to do was ride in an enclosed car with the person who did sign up for it, and who likes to keep her word - even when she gave her word to a front person for sleazy hucksterism that preys upon a beautiful thing: the vacation fantasies of the middle class.

My wife grew up in an inner city in West Africa and learned English while cleaning hospitals and waiting tables in New York City. So though she certainly figured out that this sales pitch was sleazy and evil once it got underway, she later thought it was ridiculous to hear it described as a low point in my life.

It was a low point in my life - the epitome of all that I usually manage to avoid. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, physically and spiritually, and I had to sit there and take it. It was worse than bootcamp with the U.S. Navy. It was almost as bad as reading one-sided, misleading half-truths from St. Louis officials printed with a straight face and no opposition in the Post-Dispatch.

It was a low, low circle of hell.


Image of the 9th Circle of Hell by Suloni Robertson from a University of Texas site devoted to Dante's Inferno.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Leonard Barkan's Labyrinth list of books that count

My dear friend and mentor Leonard Barkan is not on FaceBook, and if he were I doubt he would spend time filling out any of the ubiquitous FaceBook quizzes or lists, and I tend not to read those lists when even my dearest friends do fill them out, but anything Leonard has to say about a book is worth reading and repeating.

Leonard teaches comparative literature at Princeton University, directs its Society of Fellows (making him honcho of the smartest of the smart) and is among the most distinguished and accomplished scholars of his generation in any field. He is also very fun to read.

He wrote to me yesterday,

I just had a delightful invitation from Labyrinth Bookstore (a glorious addition to Princeton's very limited urban scene) that I select a few volumes that are particularly important to me, which they will group as a display, along with a couple of my own books and with some brief notes by me about why these books count so much.

My choices were focussed on how much diversity I could display and how many different interests of mine would get touched upon.
So, here's the list, with Leonard's brief notes to me:

* Andre Aciman, Out of Egypt (exemplary memoir; work of a good friend)

* Nicholson Baker, U and I (quirkiest book about literary influence that could possibly be written)

* Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (classic of philology, foundational to my notion of what it means to do literature, philology, and culture)

* Edgar Wind, Pagan Mysteries in the Renaissance (the book that made me interdisciplinary)

* Marcella Hazan, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking (needs no explanation)

* Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics (because it was my students who turned me on to it: it's a subtle account of word and image, and it's actually in the form of a comic book).

I clearly have some catching up to do.

I own and have cooked from Marcella's book (it must have been a gift from Leonard), and own and have his friend Andre's book (which found a little precious, but it's possible to disagree with your mentors, even about the things they taught you).

Curtius and Wind have appeared on syllabi in courses I took and completed and probably even received good grades in, though I'll admit that is no guarantee that I actually read them. I find in my forties that I am finally settled and mature enough to be the scholar they tried to make me when I was a self-destructive twenty-something. Now, I am ready.

The other two just sound like quirky, silly fun. I probably would have been more ready for them when I was a self-destructive twenty-something. They go on my list, but toward the bottom.

Anyone who edits their own reading list from tips on blogs should Google Barkan and start with one of his books that look good before getting to any of these. I see online bargain copies of one of his books that I edited, Unearthing the Past: Archaeology and Aesthetics in the Making of Renaissance Culture, which taught me so much about so many things and gave me such pleasure.

Can't go wrong there.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

When Geoff Seitz played fiddle for Eleanor Roosevelt

A nice new multimedia essay on my buddy Geoffrey Seitz by Erik Lunsford of The Post-Dispatch gives me a good excuse to spotlight his fiddle work with my band Eleanor Roosevelt.

These songs will appear one of these years on the Eleanor Roosevelt record Water Bread & Beer. We tracked Geoff at the late Pops Farrar's house, on the outskirts of Belleville and Millstadt, Illinois. Pops was alive then and eagerly consented to our turning his place into an impromptu recording studio for a few days.

Free mp3s

Lyrics from a Moroccan Jewish children's song to summon rain.

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

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

"James Brown Boulevard"
True story. I was living at the time in Augusta, Georgia, JB's hometown. There really is a scary street with this name there.

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

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 Geoffrey Seitz (fiddle).

With a new Son Volt record on its way now, I am reminded that the room of Pops' house Lij cleaned out to use as our control room had been Jay Farrar's bedroom growing up. In cleaning out the room, Lij unearthed some lost Son Volt masters! Forgot which ones. Jay ran right over and picked those up!


Photo of Geoff, not by Lunsford from his photoessay, but by my friend Frank Di Piazza. Frank fell in love with Geoff's fiddle shop a few years ago and got the go-ahead to shoot it for St. Louis Magazine. I was then tabbed to write the copy for it.

I first wrote about Geoff (for the Ray Hartmann-era Riverfront Times) and befriended him back in 1993, after he won First Place for Old-Time Fiddle at the prestigious Appalachian String Band Music Festival in Clifftop, W.V.

Feller was nice enough to pay his and his wife Val's way out to New York to play "Ook Pik Waltz" at my wedding when I got hitched ten years ago. Salts of the Earth.

Friday, April 10, 2009

POTUS #40: Ronald Reagan

The idea behind my POTUS series was to commission presidential portrait songs, rather than scavenge them, but this little blues for Ronald Reagan, written by Paul Kinman and performed by his party band P. Mirkin & The Bodags, was not possible to resist. I scavenged it from the vast archive of Richard Derrick, Paul's friend and (on this track) guitarist.

Richard explains:
P. Mirkin & The Bodags was our "party band" that started in 1984, when Paul Kinman (P. Mirkin) ended up living next door to my friend Tom Pachal. Their two homes collectively became our Party Central until 1988, when Paul moved to another state. We played a lot of parties, mostly in the outdoor court where they lived; one of these parties was where three songs from D. Boon & Friends were recorded.

Besides Paul and Tom, Rob Ivon played bass, and I usually played drums. We did a lot of covers and a few originals. Sometimes Tom would switch to drums so I could play some space loop guitar. Never got around to playing any clubs, although we did a few live radio gigs. We weren't really serious about this, it was just to have some fun, which for four years we did.
As for Reagan himself, he needs no introduction at this point.

Free mp3

"Ronald Reagan Blues"
(Paul Kinman)
P. Mirkin & the Bodags

Richard Derrick * acoustic guitar
Paul Kinman * vocal
Tom Pachal * harmonica

Recorded at KXLU (Los Angeles)
11 December 1984

Previously unreleased


More in this series

POTUS #8: Martin Van Buren
POTUS #14: Franklin Pierce, by John Morris
POTUS #17: Andrew Johnson, by William Tonks
POTUS #18: Ulysses S. Grant, by Waterloo
POTUS #26: Theodore Roosevelt, by Tim McAvin
POTUS #43: George W. Bush, by Steve Allain


Reagan birthday cake from Amy Ridenour's National Center blog, provided by David and Nancy Almasi.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Radio Free St. Louis Symphony Orchestra

On a recent working vacation to Los Angeles I was struck by the excellence of KUSC, its classical music station. I have been listening to it on my laptop ever since I got back home. And I have been thinking how it makes sense that our great musical director here in St. Louis, David Robertson, is from Santa Monica. The degree of intelligence and daring of David and of KUSC seem comparable to me.

I listen to KDHX in the car when I am home, so I really don't have a very updated sense of St. Louis classical radio, but my memories of Classic 99 are not particularly intense. Either I have been missing something or the station is about to move in a much more exciting direction, because KFUO-Classic 99 is about to start doing live broadcasts of David Robertson's band!

On Saturday, May 9 at 7:30 p.m., the station will broadcast live from Powell Hall The Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra ’s performance of Thomas Adès’ Asyla (a St. Louis premiere) and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, “Choral,” directed by David Robertson and featuring guest vocalists Heidi Grant Murphy, Jennifer Dudley, Brandon Jovanovich and Jonathan Lemalu, with the Saint Louis Symphony Chorus under the direction of Amy Kaiser.

KFUO also will broadcast a loooooong pre-concert show from 3-7:30 p.m. that will include a discussion with Fred Bronstein, the new SLSO honcho, a highly energetic populist who probably is behind this new partnership.

But that's not all! as they say on the infomercials.

Beginning July 1 and running through September 9, KFUO will broadcast a weekly SLSO Summer Series hosted by David. The series will feature music by the SLSO from archival recordings (love those archival recordings!), as well as more recent live recordings made during David’s tenure as music director (can't wait to hear those!), from the 2005-06 season to the present.

The 11-week SLSO Summer Series may beheard on Wednesday evenings beginning at 8 p.m. St. Louis time, with rebroadcasts on Fridays at midnight. Since I have an adult social life on Wednesdays but spend Friday nights doing something with my tot, Classic 99 is about to meet its most fanatical Friday night devotee. Let the bootlegging begin!

Since all broadcasts may be heard live on and David and the Symphony are treasured internationally in the art music scene, St. Louis classic radio is about to grow its online listening audience - big time.

I am learning from the press release I am cribbing all this from that Classic 99 is owned and operated by the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. Love ya, Lutherans. Happy early Easter. I'll see ya, or hear ya, on May 9 and all summer long.


Thats my sketch of SLSO percussionist Tom Stubbs, colored by Leyla Fern King.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A tale of two cities: voter breakdown by wards

Courtesy of the grinders at the St. Louis Board of Election Commissioners: the ward-by-ward breakdown of votes in yesterday's municipal elections.

Like the ward breakdown of the March primary, it reveals what people mostly know: that we live in two cities, North and South, black and white.

On March 3 Irene J. Smith was the Democratic nominee in every majority-black North Side ward, and yesterday Maida Coleman beat the incumbent mayor in every majority-black North Side ward.

Though not one single black alderman endorsed Coleman and Slay was the official Democratic candidate, only one ward led by a black alderman – the highly diverse 6th Ward – was won by Slay yesterday, with only 55 percent of the vote.

North St. Louis resoundingly rejected Slay, despite his active support from many black aldermen, including Jeffrey Boyd, Freeman Bosley Sr., Frank Williamson, Greg Carter and April Ford Griffin.
Coleman won (by descending voter margins) the following North City Wards: 1, 21, 4, 27, 2, 18, 26, 3, 22, 5 and 19 – reflecting a growing divide between the political commitments of the black aldermen and the wishes expressed at the polls by their constituents.

This will be an interesting dynamic to follow over the next four years.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Brett Underwood Stimulus Package Baseball

"That guy has bought me so many beers."

"He has booked me for so many gigs."

These were the things that I heard from the high rollers last night, over and over, as they dropped more than the requested $1 into the hat for Brett Underwood.

"For Brett ..." they said, dropping in $5, $10 or even $20, rather than the $1 I asked for, "bartender style".

In the end, we raised $151 to defray the cost of replacing his stolen bicycle wheels, which I thought would hurt him since it happened just before he left for a planned two-week vacation, unpaid like all bartender vacations.

He is coming home to at least $151, which he will spend, no doubt, on us.

It was night of unabashed Brett love at CBGB, a wake for a living man, a man who was living large in Madrid while we played music and scuttled up money for him.

I asked all donors to sign a baseball for the former SLU hurler. It is now quite an artifact. With the $151, I'll be giving this guy a baseball signed by: Ray Brewer, Marc Chechick, Sam Coffey, Heather Corley, John Eiler, Joe Freeman, Fred Friction, Eric Hall, Matt Harnish, Frank Heyer, Jason Hutto, Chris King, Tim McAvin, Tim Rakel, Colin Michael Shaw, Dana Smith, Dave Stone, Joseph Sulier, Sarah Truckey, Christopher Y. Voelker, Joe Wetteroth and a bunch of other people I must be forgetting.

Not a bad snapshot of the South Side scene.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Death and the mariachi

"They didn't like my music. I'm ending it all ..."

This was the thought bubble ad-libbed by my new friend Crane as we saw this mariachi peering over the edge at Redondo Beach, as if contemplating sending himself and his fiddle over.

I thought it was kind of funny.

At the time, we were enjoying delicious beers and fried food at Naja's Place.

Crane and his old friend Richard Derrick are regular contributing musicians to Poetry Scores, the arts org I cofounded that translated poetry into other media.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Shakespeare on holiday

If there is anything everybody understands, it's a holiday.

If there is anything that everybody had to read that almost nobody understood, it's Shakespeare.

So I am in a mild state of shock to now realize that holiday is central to understanding Shakespeare's plays.

The idea is nothing new - C.L. Barber first published Shakespeare's Festive Comedy fifty years ago, in 1959. I have owned at least two editions of the book over the years. But it's taken me more than twenty years of dabbling in Renaissance scholarship to finally read it, which is the fun of dabbling: you get to discover the classics when you need them and feel them.

Check out this bit. Barber is talking about how holiday meant one thing in the conservative countryside, like where Shakespeare grew up, and another thing in the progressive city, like in London, where he made his name and fortune - and that difference meant one thing under Queen Elizabeth, and another under thing King James.

Attitudes that meant one thing in the static, monolithic world of village and manor meant other things, more complex and challenging, when continued in the many-minded world of city and court.

Under Elizabeth, the court circle kept high days without making an issue of them and enjoyed the elaboration of native customs in all sorts of neo-classical guises. Under James, courtiers and their literary spokesmen began to be militant in defending holiday, the king himself intervening to protect the popular pastimes from Puritan repression. In the Jacobean period the defense of holiday pleasures by a group whose everyday business was pleasure often became trivial and insincere.

Shakespeare, coming up to London from a rich market town, growing up in the relatively unselfconscious 1570s and 80s, and writing his festive plays in the decade of the 90s, when most of the major elements in English society enjoyed a moment of reconcilement, was perfectly situated to express both a countryman's participation in holiday and a city man's consciousness of it.
What I like best is Barber's story turn on core concepts - city vs. country, transitions between regimes - that are still powerfully in effect. I feel like I can use what I learn in how I think about things as they are changing today.


Image of Will Kemp, a clown who worked with Shakespeare, from Kempes Nine Daies Wonder.

Madonna video of "Holiday" from original release period.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

On War Brides and bottomless idea pits

"The construction of white men's power in comic books."

This is just one of few bottomless idea pits I had the opportunity to peer down yesterday afternoon as I nibbled on a ham sandwich and a sugar cookie.

The occasion: Andrea Friedman, associate professor of History and Women & Gender Studies at Washington University, presenting on her project "Democracy in (Cold War) America: Gender, Race, and the Problem of Citizenship at Mid-Century."

What was I doing there, peering down bottomless idea pits while muching and sipping on a soda (I couldn't get an ale served in a campus seminar room)?

Andrea Friedman is among the current batch of Faculty Fellows with the Center for the Humanities at Washington University. The competitive program cuts three faculty free of teaching each semester to work on a book project. One of the things they have to do, in addition to work on their book, is give a public lecture.

This was Andrea Friedman's public lecture as a Faculty Fellow. The bit about the comic books and the construction of men's power - construction done, from my knowledge of comic book writers and artists, by some of the most physically powerless men on the planet - was hers. But she didn't get into all of that yesterday.

Yesterday she told us a story. She told us about Ellen Knauff. A German Jew who lived in Prague, she escaped the Nazi sweep of Europe while the rest of her family died in the camps. She served as a Red Cross nurse in England, then worked for the Royal Air Force and the American military government.

She enters history for real after marrying an American citizen and attempting to come home with him as a War Bride, arriving August 14, 1948. After questioning by an immigration official, she was detained at Ellis Island, and within two months she had been excluded from entering the U.S. on grounds that admitting her would be "prejudicial" to national security.

Quite a story. It comes to involve Supreme Court tussles and game-changing journalism by The Post-Dispatch in its Pulitzer heyday, back when it was an advocacy paper for the downtrodded and oppressed, rather than for the Mayor of St. Louis and the Superintendent of the City Jails, who get the Post's love these days.

I'll just share the nuggets of language that caught my ear and that I jotted down.

"She gave maps to pilots, so she knew where they would be bombing." - Andrea Friedman, on Ellen Knauff's service to the Royal Air Force.

"Security is like liberty in that many are the crimes committed in its name." - Justice Robert Jackson, in his dissenting ruling on her Supreme Court case.

"You get single women complaining about War Brides." - Andrea Friedman, on the cultural context at that time, which led another abserver to muse on the tabloid elements of the story.

"Queers, Communists and Jews bleed into one another." - A post-graduate student everyone referred to as "Benjy". The bleeding here is metaphorical, and he clearly was using the often perjorative word "Queer" in the spirit of reclaiming it from the bigots.

Finally, my favorite: "Can you re-gender into that line of argument?" Said by the woman next to me at the seminar table, this reflects the continuing faddishness of gender as something to consider in an academic setting.

For all I know, this may introduce a new verb to the language. "To re-gender" (v): to get gender back into an argument or analysis and thereby promote the likelihood of publication by an academic journal or university press.

Just joking. No sour grapes here. I got into the gender and "Queer" studies fads as a graduate student, and I was amply rewarded in my academic labors for as long as I could stick it out. Then rock & roll called, and I ran away to join that circus instead.

So, what was I doing back on campus, peering down into these bottomless idea pits?

My former professor, mentor and program director (when I became a professor myself) at Washington University, Gerald Early, tabbed me last year to join the Advisory Board for the Center for the Humanities, which he directs.

Gerald has always tried to say yes to me, and I always try to say yes to him. I said yes. It's been a fun ride so far, and I am proud that we are supporting Andrea Friedman's project.

My advice to her was to share her work with some members of the Missouri Supreme Court who might be interested and, when book blurb time comes, with U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill.

I also suggested she get an op-ed out of the theme of mainstream journalism as advocacy journalism, using the case of the Post and Ellen Knauff, when she has a book on the way and is looking to sneak its name into the public domain without paying for an ad. Very old publisher's trick.


WWII War Bride "nose art" on a B-17 from a site devoted to the U.S. Air Force 303rd Bomb Group.

Friday, April 3, 2009

To one who stowed away inside my head

I have been thinking lately about the people who most influence us, the ones who really get under our skin, the ones who crawl inside our head and stow away.

I've been thinking about this because I've been singing to myself a song I wrote about such a person in my life. A rough mix of a recording of the song, "Argentina," recently resurfaced in Nashville. We rejected it for the next Eleanor Roosevelt record, but it's worth sharing here, I think.

And it sure has made me think a lot about somebody I used to know very well.

The lyrics are based on a story she once told me, when we used to spend many of our days together, in her apartment in a dangerous little pocket of the near South Side of St. Louis. It is also infused with the insecure and obsessive tinge to my feelings about her back then.
I'd crawl right up your leg
I'd crawl into your head
I'd crawl inside your bed
But you know know that
without it being said

You went to Argentina with
your trust friend and your best friend
But I did not get on the list
of those deserving a goodbye kiss

I'm always sending postcards
though I'm never far from home
See, it makes me feel
like I've been far away

I'd crawl inside your suitcase
I'd be your stowaway
But I'm afraid the dope dogs would drag me away
And you'd probably never even unpack me anyway

You went to Argentina with
a coke spoon and a bunch of poltoons
shooting dope with dignitary's son's son
Tell me, how did you like
your first taste of that?
Tell me, how did you like
your ride on the wild horse?
How did you like your first taste of smack?

Cork inside the bottle
Oh, but you'll suck it out
You got the brie cheese jammed
down in your orthodontal teeth

Getting drunk in the tropics
with a dictator's daughter
while I'm reading books back home
about the Latin American slaughter

You went to Argentina
I still recall the clothes you wore
to the dirty war
But I did not get on the list
I was on nobody's death list
And not on your list of love

I'd crawl right up your leg
I'd crawl inside your head
I'd crawl inside your bed
But you know know that
without it being said
I'm not sure that I ever outgrew those feelings. But I moved away, then she moved away, then she got married, and I got married, then one of us had a kid, and the other one of us had a kid. You end up too busy, pulled in too many different directions, for the old obsessions to matter very much anymore.

But still, you are alone in the car on the drive to work. And in the car, alone on the drive to work, you sing to yourself, and you pay brief visits to the people who have stowed away inside your head.

Free mp3

(Chris King)
Eleanor Roosevelt

Chris King: vocals, guitar. Dave Melson, bass. John Minkoff, electric guitar. Billy Teague, drums.

Recorded in the old Undertow Studio in Downtown St. Louis. Produced and roughly mixed by Lij.


Stowaway image from The Mariner's Museum.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Vashon student-mothers photo show at UMSL

A doctored press release from UMSL about what sounds like a great project.


"That’s my baby."

These are powerful, almost magical words.

The good folks at the University of Missouri-St. Louis' Public Policy Research Center recognize that.

As the latest installment in its ongoing Photography Project, student-mothers at Vashon High School were asked to focused the cameras on their interaction with their children.

The student-mothers who participated are part of the Parent Infant Interaction Program, which was created as a way to keep teenage parents in school. The program offers early childhood education to the students’ children and early childhood development classes to the parents.

After 20 years of service, PIIP remains the only center of its kind in St. Louis.

Instructor Lois Ingrum taught photography to nine Vashon students in the program. The students then honed their new skills by taking parent-child portraits and documenting what they learned at PIIP.

"Pregnancy is a tough road for any teen," said Mel Watkin, director of the PPRC Photography Project at UMSL.

"Parenting teens have to grow up fast and learn to pursue their lives, mostly as single moms. PIIP teaches them to finish school, and to have career goals and personal dreams."

"Parent Infant Interaction Program," an exhibit of the Vashon High School students’ photos, will be on display April 7 through May 24 in the PPRC Photography Project Gallery, which is on the third floor of UMSL's Social Sciences and Business Building. Gallery hours are 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. An opening reception will be held from noon to 1 p.m. April 7 in the gallery.

A duplicate of each PPRC Photography Project exhibit also is displayed in the neighborhood in which the photographs were taken.

In addition to UMSL, "Parent Infant Interaction Program" will be on display March 31 through May 11 at St. Louis Public Library's Schlafly Branch, 225 N. Euclid Ave. Exhibit hours are 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays. An opening reception will be held from 5:30 to 7 p.m. March 31 at the library.

The PPRC Photography Project was modeled after the pioneering community photography programs established by artist and teacher Wendy Ewald. Several volunteer St. Louis-area community groups participate in the PPRC Photography Project each year. They learn the basics of photography and then are asked to document efforts to improve their neighborhood's quality of life.

The Public Policy Research Center's goal for the project is twofold: to highlight the undertakings of local organizations working toward the greater good and to inspire people to take a closer look at and get involved with their communities.

Visit or call 314-516-5273 for more information.


Photo is "In My Shadow" by Victory Riggins.