Some of my
journalism

Quite the World, Isn't It?


On Bob Mould's 25-year-old "Workbook"

February 28, 2014

Tags: personal, music

The Post Office was good to me twice this week (I already posted about the box of paperbacks): The 25th anniversary remaster of Bob Mould’s “Workbook” album, with a second disk of a live recording of the album and some other songs, as well.

Music comes and goes, especially pop and rock, but this is one of those albums that has stuck with me over the years. I was a middling fan of Husker Du, Mould’s first band, simultaneously drawn and repelled by the sheer mass of noise they created. Maybe not repelled – challenged is a better word. It was music that took work to listen to, to find the threads of melody through the controlled chaos and remarkably dense sound created by a three-man band. Cathartic, yes, but catharsis is never easy now, is it?

Then Husker Du broke up – atomized, really – and Mould disappeared for a few months and suddenly “Workbook” was out. I remember tossing the album on the turntable and hearing the first few notes of acoustic guitar on the opening track, ”Sunspots,” repeat and build at the same time into a mesmerizing solo display that Mould never would have done with Husker Du. This was new, and different, and he was clearly making a musical break from the past. It was transition as statement.

Then came the other tracks, harder-edged, plugged-in, driving and evocative at the same time. And intimate, as in “I See A Little Light,” which her performs in the video below:

As I said, pop and rock music fades quickly. But not this album. It remains as strong and fresh as when Mould first recorded it, and is still on my high rotation” list. It should be on your, too.


On Peter Case, Jon Clinch, and garlic

July 14, 2010

Tags: books, music, travel

This is kind of a journalistic trifecta. In the past couple of weeks I've had a few freelance articles pop up, one on singer/songwriter Peter Case, another on author Jon Clnch and the third on the city of Gilroy, California, the self-anointed Garlic Capital of the World.

The Case profile was a lot of fun. I took along my son Michael, a guitar player, in part to hear what Case had to say about his music, and in part to use the car-pool lane for the long drive from Irvine to Santa Monica. It's all about the traffic out here. And the occasion for the Case profile was the release of his new album, "Wig!" Some of his strongest work in years. There's a video embedded below from his show at McCabe's Guitar Shop the other day in Santa Monica -- same place where I interviewed him.

I also loved Clinch's new novel, his second. Kings of the Earth: A Novel is a fictionalized look at a bizarre death and murder case in Central New York. He nails the terrain, and it serves as a great follow up to his debut, Finn, picking up the story of Huck Finn's father where Mark Twain left off.

As for the Gilroy travel piece, well, how can you not like a place that smells like an Italisn restaurant?

"Somebody Told the Truth" (Live) by Peter Case from Tom Weber on Vimeo.


Malcolm McLaren, Johnny Rotten and me

April 8, 2010

Tags: personal, media, music

So the news today that Malcolm McLaren had died caught me a bit by surprise, though I guess it shouldn't have. I'm at the age where the key pop figures from youth start keeling over from natural causes (in this case, apparently, cancer).

As word of McLaren's death grew, I tossed on the Sex Pistols' "Never Mind the Bollocks" and filled the house with jarring guitar and Johnny Rotten's petulant sneer -- much to the annoyance of my 16-year-old son. He wasn't complaining that it was too-tame oldies music, but that it was too annoying (he's a jazz and blues guy). You have to love the irony of the teen telling the parent to turn that noise down, but there it was.

And it reminded me of the time I interviewed John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, in 1994, when I was working at The Detroit News (one of my "mini-beats" was covering punk and alternative rock). It was by phone, tied to an upcoming Public Image Limited tour. He was a bit stunned when I asked him about the then-looming 20th anniversary of the Sex Pistols -- until then, he said, it hadn't registered on him that it had been that long. I also asked him the innocuous, evergreen question about what music he was listening to, and whether any current punk bands stood out.

That set him off on a riff about the state of pop music, which he thought was poor, and at the end he compared the then-new bands as "just so many cows farting." I laughed out loud, then asked if he had ever heard cows farting. "No," he said, "but I have heard Pink Floyd."

Ah, Johnny Rotten, why are you being so rotten?*

*go to the 1:17:40 mark, near the end, at Punk Rock, The Movie, linked above.


Exene Cervanka: Not about to fade away

March 27, 2010

Tags: journalism, music

The new issue of Orange Coast magazine has a piece I wrote on Exene Cervenka, one of the key figures in X, the Los Angeles roots-punk band from back before punk became an affectation (i.e., the good old days).

I met with Cervenka at The Filling Station in Orange, near where she lives and where I'm teaching part-time at Chapman University. It was a fun piece to do, and a great conversation. from the story:
Things have changed from those raucous days. Punk has moved from rebellion to commodity. The originals are becoming nostalgia acts, the imitators are the scene-setters and, were it not for all the hair dye, this night’s crowd of 50-or-so fans would look like a battalion of Q-Tips. Mosh pit? Um, no.

Cervenka has changed, too. Age is rarely gentle, and in Cervenka’s case it has brought along multiple sclerosis, diagnosed nearly a year ago. She keeps on top of it with medication, and, so far, the mysterious degenerative disease hasn’t had much affect on her physically.

And she has settled, improbably, in Orange County after a four-year sojourn in rural Missouri where she pursued a whim to live “in a big stone house out in the middle of nowhere in the country with my husband, making music and art.” In fact, Cervenka’s band on The Detroit Bar stage looks like one from a Missouri country and western roadhouse, circa 1955.


Who knew Pops was a pothead?

December 1, 2009

Tags: writing, books, nonfiction, music, biography

A little slow in posting on this - I have two weeks to finish off the current book project, so am under the gun - but I had this piece in the Los Angeles Times over the weekend on critic Terry Teachout's new biography, Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong.

It's a good, solid bit of work, infused with insights Teachout gleaned from some 650 reels of tapes Armstrong made - many surreptitiously - on his home recorder. As I mentioned in the piece, that let Teachout eavesdrop on large portions of the last half of Armstrong's life.

The tapes didn't reveal any significant new details on an already well-chronicled jazz legend, but the book is likely to introduce Armstrong as a full character to a generation of people who only know him as the voice in "It's a Wonderful World." And yes, Armstrong enjoyed the occasional - okay, daily - joint. And behind that engaging smile there existed a complex man who was eager to please, saw himself as an entertainer first, and who was more than capable of flexing his ego.

The book is an engaging read, and worth picking up for yourself or the jazz lover on your holiday list.


Shane MacGowan, The Pogues, and NASCAR

October 18, 2009

Tags: music

Went last night to see The Pogues, long one of my favorite bands, though I'd never managed to catch them live during their first incarnation in the '80s. Glad I went, but Margaret and I left before the encore - and that is a key mark of how bad they were.

The band has become a self-caricature. Lead singer Shane MacGowan's drinking problem is legendary - the band fired him over it in 1991. Last night, MacGowan fell over three times on stage, finishing songs from the floor before the roadies, then his band mates, helped him to his feet. They finally wheeled in one of those big gray equipment cases for him to sit on.

And naturally it affected his performance. MacGowan's voice has always been an acquired taste, a whiskey-and-cigarettes rasping (and often indecipherable) mumble that was also a muted primal scream. The raw intensity gave the songs an urgency. He was the romanticized fallen man incarnate, the beauty of the emotion overcoming the limitations of the voice.

Last night at Club Nokia, all that was left was the bad voice. Except for a few moments that sparkled ("If I Should Fall From the Grace of God" and "Sunny Side of the Street" taped live here in March in the current incarnation), it was an ineffective drone of a voice, with no intensity or emotional impact, off-tempo much of the time, and that seemed to throw the whole band off. "Turkish Song of the Damn" was a reel of mush. "Bottle of Smoke" careened badly. When Spider Stacey, the whistle player who eventually took over singing duties after MacGowan's departure (and after a short stint by the irreplaceable Joe Strummer), sang it was a tighter band. But it wasn't The Pogues. And with MacGowan, The Pogues were close to unlistenable.

After MacGowan's third tumble - flat backwards with a dumb look of surprise on his face - the rest of the show was like watching a NASCAR race, where part of the draw is anticipating the next wreck. And you have to wonder where the band's pride is. Can they be satisfied propping up MacGowan just for the sake of a gig?


Tuesday will be a good day NOT to be in LA

July 5, 2009

Tags: media, celebrity, music

As the lunacy surrounding Michael Jackson's death and wake intensify, I'm increasingly happy I'll be in San Francisco this coming week (giving a talk and signing copies of Blood Passion Wednesday night). Jackson's family has agreed to a memorial program at Staples Center Tuesday night, which seems reasonable.

But 1.6 million people apparently registered for the lottery to win one of 8,750 pair of tickets. For the rest, not to worry -- nearly all the major television networks and a bunch of cable channels will be airing the event live. Katie Couric, the CBS News anchor, will be on hand for that network, which as of a little bit ago was the only major network not planning live coverage.

Give it time.

Live prime time coverage of a funeral for a pop star? At the risk of sounding curmudgeonly... oh, never mind. I'll be in San Francisco, hopefully at a baseball game that night. You have your entertainment diversions, I have mine ...


U2, Barcelona and some shrewd web marketing

July 2, 2009

Tags: media, celebrity, music

A Facebook friend posted this U2 video embedded below, built around the start of their world tour earlier this week in Barcelona. It's an interesting ten minutes, watching the gig come together and getting a sense of the sheer size of the Nou Camp arena, where FC Barcelona plays soccer. The stadium holds 98,000 people, which makes it a little smaller than the football stadium at the University of Michigan, where I used to do occasional stories on the UM-MSU and UM-Notre Dame rivalries. But it's still pretty damn big. For the concert, some 90,000 seats were available. And it took less than an hour to sell out.

What strikes me about this video, though, is the shrewd way U2 uses it for marketing. The video generates some excitement, gives fans a taste of the stage design, offers some close-up, high-resolution video -- but only snippets of songs, presumably to thwart piracy.

So far, only 7,000 views on YouTube, but expect that to grow quickly.


A few thoughts on Michael Jackson and new media

June 26, 2009

Tags: media, celebrity, music

By now you all know Michael Jackson died yesterday, seemingly of a heart attack. There's a ton of coverage out there, some very solid (check out my friend Ann Powers' lovely tribute at the LA Times) and some pretty bizarre, such as the fan who told KABC-7 here in Los Angeles that the death was "life-changing." Well, yeah, in a binary, lights on/lights off kind of way.

A few things jump out at me. Jackson was a powerfully talented singer, songwriter and entertainer, with a shrewd sense of media manipulation and an admirable ability to break down barriers. He was also a tragic figure with a suspicious devotion to children that eventually overwhelmed his standing as a pop music icon (to most of the public, at least).

But I quibble with the hyperbole about his influence on pop music. Pop culture, definitely. Pop music, not as much. Most of Jackson's influence was in a specific cul de sac in pop music, the hit-hunting R&B neighborhood. He built on the creativity of predecessors like James Brown and wisely put himself in Quincy Jones' hands, but while he was toe-dancing and twirling and bringing old R&B showmanship on tour and to MTV, punk visionaries and the hip-hop generation emerged and radically transformed popular music. Against that backdrop, Jackson was less revolutionary than evolutionary.

Part of any major breaking news story is the media covering the media, including this bit from Robert Niles at the Online Journalism Review. Okay, so here goes an assessment of the assessment. Niles points out that people who use Twitter were tweeting away about the death long before it had been confirmed anywhere outside TMZ, which apparently got the scoop (and a hearty congrats to them). Ignoring the point that the tweets were, in effect, lightning-fast gossip, Niles argues media outlets should drop their use of email alerts about major news events because they make the outlets seem "clueless and slow."

Maybe, but only to the folks who rely on tweets for their news. And this strikes at one of the flawed undercurrents of a lot of media analysis right now -- it focuses on the technology more than the message. Twitter is still a new and growing social network with some intriguing potential for use (and abuse). But it is hardly pervasive. I have an account but don't receive tweets because I don't use text-messaging. The vast majority of people in this country don't use Twitter. In this eternal rush to the new we tend to forget about the established. Even with the startling decline of newspapers, outlets like my former employer, the LA Times, still sell hundreds of thousands of printed copies a day.

We can't forsake the old just because there's new. What's emerging aren't full replacements for newspapers but added avenues of information distribution (with some serious economic consequences, to be sure). Radio didn't kill newspapers, TV didn't kill radio and the Internet and Twitter aren't going to be murderous entities either. Like Jackson, they're more evolutionary than revolutionary. With all due respect to Marshall McLuhan, the message is the message.


Clarence Clemons, Bruce Springsteen and 'Jungleland'

May 30, 2009

Tags: LA Times, books, history, music

I posted this over at the LA Times' Jacket Copy blog yesterday, but thought I'd share it here, too. Thursday night's keynote start to the Book Expo America included a sitdown between author Chuck Klosterman and Bruce Springsteen's sax-playing sideman Clarence Clemons and Don Reo, Clemons' co-author on his upcoming memoir, Big Man.

The highlight was listening to Clemons play the sax solo for "Jungleland" a few measures at a time, and then talk about how he and Springsteen forged it during a nonstop, 16-hour all-nighter. Clemons explained how he and Springsteen experimented by "playing this solo every way that it was possible to take those notes and put them together."

I had my digital recorder running, but given the size of the hall the recording isn't very good, unfortunately. So we'll just have to settle for this:




Jay Bennett dies

May 25, 2009

Tags: music

I was saddened to see that Jay Bennett died yesterday. I still listen to old Wilco albums, and this morning tossed on Bennett's "Bigger than Blue." Great songwriter with a voice that can haunt.

Here he is with Jeff Tweedy in better days (they had a rather acrimonious fall out).




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About me


A third-generation journalist, I was born in Scarborough, Maine, and grew up there and in Wellsville, New York, about two hours south of Buffalo. My first newspaper job came at age 16, writing a high school sports column for the Wellsville Patriot, a weekly (defunct), then covering local news part-time for the Wellsville Daily Reporter.

After attending Fredonia State, where I was editor of The Leader newspaper and news director for WCVF campus radio, I worked in succession for the Jamestown Post-Journal, Rochester Times-Union (defunct), The Detroit News and the Los Angeles Times, where I covered presidential and other political campaigns, books, local news and features, including several Sunday magazine pieces.

An active freelancer, my work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Sierra Magazine, Los Angeles magazine, Orange Coast magazine, New York Times Book Review (books in brief), Buffalo News, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Teaching Tolerance (Southern Poverty Law Center), Solidarity (United Auto Workers) and elsewhere. I teach or have taught journalism courses at Chapman University and UC Irvine, and speak occasionally at school and college classes about journalism, politics and writing. I've appeared on panels at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and the Literary Orange festival, moderated panels at the Nieman Conference in Narrative Journalism and the North American Labor History Conference, among others, and been featured on C-SPAN's Book TV.

I'm also a co-founder of The Journalism Shop, a group of journalists (most fellow former Los Angeles Times staffers) available for freelance assignments.



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