We Got CHERed Babe!

CHER and her hunky boy dancers

CHER and her hunky boy dancers

Las Vegas, rising Oz-like in the arid southwest desert, is a shimmering mirage of castles and zoos and pyramids, home to dreamers and the jaded, the drifters and the care-free one-percent, developers and dancers, Siegfried and Roy. Where the ridiculous meets the sublime and no one’s sure which is which. Glowing, flashing neon, pulsating like the Aurora Borealis, ka-chings, come-ons and casino cool. The emerald city, bound by desert, red rock and sage brush, sucking the life-blood out of Lake Mead. Ephemeral and corrupt, it shouldn’t exist, but sometimes you just have to stand humbly smack-dab in the middle of its outrageous garishness and whisper “Oh My God!”
Well, that is the Las Vegas of my mind, for, full-disclosure, I’ve never been there, don’t have a great desire to visit, and probably never will. But for one exhausting evening Carol and I got a taste of Vegas when CHER (And I will type her name in caps because the woman is all caps all the time) came to town; to quote the harpy-voice woman sitting behind us, who dropped beer all over Carol twice, “CHER, CHER, holy shit, CHER!”
cher posterOur tickets to DTK (Dressed to Kill, the final–yes, I’m not kidding this time, I was 11 years ago, but not this time–tour of CHER’s storied 50-year career in the biz) were birthday gifts from Carol’s sister Janet, who had seen her in Atlanta and had caught CHER fever.
Arriving fashionably early, we had an opportunity to take in the crowds, an event in itself. Faux CHERs were everywhere one looked: gowns, mountainous wigs, black tights, wobbly stiletto boots, and the famous butt-less mesh number CHER wore three decades ago on the Letterman Show during her hair metal incarnation. There were the Tweedle Dee brothers dressed in identical sailor suits and rainbow, rainbow, rainbow (you know, surprising fun fact: CHER is quite popular in the LGBT community, along with blue-haired, polyester boomers, the PBS oldie’s fund-raiser concert crowd).
At 8 p.m. Carol and I were yawning when the lights went down and Cyndi Lauper, draped in a rainbow flag, marched up the center aisle belting out “She-Bop.”
Cyndi Lauper, red-head at the Arena (not our photo)

Cyndi Lauper, red-head at the Arena (not our photo)

Lauper is loose and engaging and has a killer voice, powerful and poignant. And between songs, you get the classic New Yawker voice that seems alien coming from the mouth that moments before sang “Time After Time.” When Lauper broke into “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” the audience decided to just have fun as well, dancing, gyrating, singing along. Carol and I had begun to notice a trio of women behind us who managed to talk over the powerful sound system, their voices harsh and boozy. At odd moments, one of them would screech out, “Cyndie Lauper” as if she were caller number 9 in some radio contest. When they stood up to “just have fun,” one of the trio, spilled beer all over Carol and the lady next to her. They were woozily apologetic: “Shit, I am so sorry. God, let me help you. Jesus, well, now You’ll be talkin’ about the stupid broad who dropped beer on you…”
During the intermission we hustled to the restrooms only to find the lines snaking back, back, back to the next restrooms. 45 minutes later Carol walked out of the women’s room (“Four freaking stalls, FOUR!”) and we settled in for a seismic event. The Loud Ladies filed back in shortly thereafter, and damned if Loudest Lady didn’t spill wine on Carol. More “Can you fuckin’ believe I did it again. I am so sorry. Can I pay you, blah, blah, blah.” Moments later at $20 bill floated down onto Carol’s lap. Carol graciously returned it to Loud Lady, but later whispered, “It wasn’t enough.”
The arena went dark and the crowd went nuts. The lavender curtain raised slowly to reveal a huge stage with winding staircases on either side and a video montage homage to CHER playing in the background. Solid Gold dancers gyrated up and down the stairs. And suddenly rising slowly 20 feet above the stage on a pedestal was CHER. The audience, in a rapturous frenzy, raised the roof as that familiar tough-girl tenor belted out some dance tune that apparently was from her latest album, “CHERiots of Fire” (Okay, I have no idea what her latest album is called). At song’s end, and CHER safely on Stage-a Firma, she engaged us in witty repartee. And she was funny and self-deprecating.
From that point on it was one costume change after another, set changes galore and familiar tunes aplenty. She sang “I’ve Got You Babe” with video Sonny, and I was thinking, “C’mon CHER, this calls for Hologram Sonny” (probably next farewell tour). There were acrobats, magic tricks, a huge Trojan Horse that had nothing to do with anything except that CHER stepped out of it. Hell, a door would have been fine. But glitz won out over logic and the audience could have given flying fig–hmm, flying figs, now that’s entertainment.
The video graphics were always arresting as we were taken on a tour of CHER’s career, musically and cinamatically (although there was no mention of Greg Allman). At times there were 20 people on stage and probably twice that many backstage. Halfway through one number, I heard Loudest Lady say, “Parole office-noisenoisenoise-I don’t know-morenoisenoisenoise-we may have a situation here.” And then something hard dropped on my head. I didn’t turn around, but I thought it was Loudest Lady’s shoe. (After the show I found out she had dropped her cell phone on my head.)
While the crowd boogied ecstatically to” Half Breed,” “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves,” “If I Could Turn Back the Hands of Time,” (Oh man, how I wished it was 8:30 and not 11:30) and the Believe song that had her singing through a tin can, Carol and I were fading fast. But we hung in there.
Before her last song, an arbor-like platform suddenly appeared below us and floated over the crowd to the stage. CHER, dressed like Raphael’s Madonna (not to be confused with Madonna’s Madonna), stepped gracefully on board, and slowly lifted off and circled the arena singing a lame-o ballad, her goodbye song to the fans. It reminded me of the “Stonehenge” scene in This is Spinal Tap, ridiculously small, and I started to giggle, and then chuckle, and finally guffaw as she touched down on the stage and waved to the crowd and gracefully left the building for the second “last time” in her career. And then the lights went up, the crowd looked righteously spent, Loudest Lady apologized again, assured us her husband, who wouldn’t be caught dead at a CHER concert, would be the designated driver, that she didn’t get out much…yaddayaddayadda.
CHER blessing the crowd from above.

CHER blessing the crowd from above.

The merch table, one of many around the arena, was mobbed, as it had been all evening, people buying $40 t-shirts, booklets, posters. Carol and I jostled our way to the exit, and as we left Carol exclaimed, “Oh My God, that was hideous!” And I laughed and replied, “but it was a grand spectacle.” And she agreed. We had a great time!


Classical Music, it’s a gas, gas, gas!

In the 1950’s “culture” rarely ventured past the Seattle city limits. But once year the great unwashed art-starved citizens of Snohomish County would pack the Everett Civic Auditorium for a dose of classical music administered by the Seattle Symphony. My parents would dress us kids up (we may have been forced to wear jackets and little ties), lecture us on proper concert behavior (“You do not sneeze, cough, whisper or punch), and drive us to Everett for two hours of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. I don’t think I was bored. In fact, I remember being enthralled by Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue at one of those concerts. The parents, Bill and Barbara, never forced classical music on us. It just seemed to be a part our home’s ambiance.

Milton Katims directing the Seattle Symphony at the Opera House in 1962

Milton Katims directing the Seattle Symphony at the Opera House in 1962

During the school year, we knew that Monday’s were Seattle Symphony evenings for the Bates, Claytons, Knittels and Shorrocks (four-fifths of the legendary Hump Night Crew). They would tail-gate in the Seattle Center parking lot after the concert while waiting for the cars to clear out. For many years my parents held birthday parties for Bach and Beethoven. And on a couple of occasions the Seattle Symphony played the old Snohomish High School gymnasium. And the accoustics were mahvelous, dahlings! On weekends the dial would be tuned to Metropolitan Opera radio broadcast, brought to us by Texaco, and our host, the librarian-voiced Milton Cross. Mom never forced us to listen–she listened while she bustled around the house–and we never became opera aficionados (My father did the entire Ring Cycle one year. I think it was one of those life experiences he felt he needed, like reading James Joyce’s Ulysses), but the music took up residence in our unconscious.
When I fell hopelessly in love with Rock-n-Roll, I did not roll over and tell Tchaikovsky the news. Rather, I brought rock, country, jazz, Classical, et al, into my record collection and pleaded, “Can’t we all just get along?” I was determined to love it all, even if it killed me. And so Tibetan Bells, Voices of Bulgaria, Hyper-Dub 10.2, The Swans, Delta Blues field recordings, Gregorian Chants, The Kendalls, The Shags, Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music, Mel Torme, Anthony Braxton, and Terry Riley all share space in my collection.
I subscribe to Gaia theory when it comes to music, that all musical organisms are joined on some level to form some perfect sonic union and we listeners need to tune in to its rhythms and melodies, screeches, howls, moans if we have any hope of surviving as a species. Okay, that is essentially a crock of shit, but I’m just thinking out loud here. Let me return to classical music.
I bought my first two classical albums at the storied Id Bookstore on the Ave in the U District in 1967: Debussy’s La Mer and Copland’s Appalachian Spring. The Id specialized in used records and these two recordings had been seen better years. Not particularly adventurous choices, but I will never apologize for buying them or loving them, even today. I remember sitting in the living room with Cozette Stiles and listening to both of those recordings. We sat cross-legged (Oh, how I miss flexibility), eyes closed, heads slowly swaying to the music, as if we were listening to The Dead.
The following year I came across an album entitled, Terry Riley in C. I have no idea why I plunked down the money. I’d never heard of this Riley fellow and the album cover was nothing to write home about. But buy it I did, and when I put it on the turntable I was even more confused. It starts with a piano plinking a note, joined shortly by a marimba, then a clarinet, a light-hearted hippity-hop drone that goes on for the entire first side of the album. I kept waiting for it to really launch, but when I turned the record over, it kept on a droning. I played it for friends and family and we all got a kick out of it, but I’m not sure I ever played it again. It was almost unlistenable, in the way that Sun Ra might be on first try, and after ten minutes, I began to question my sanity.

Terry Riley in an excerpt from David Aitken’s Altered Earth

But, I am listening to it now, and almost 50 years after the fact, it’s not bad at all. I certainly see where Phillip Glass came from and even Sufjan Stevens. Since my accidental foray into avant-garde classical music, I have peppered my classical collection of Ives, Mahler, Schubert, Ralph Vaughn Williams (Oh, I such a sucker for Williams) Copland, Hindemuth and the like, with John Adams, Steve Reich, John Cage, Kristof Penderecki, Arnold Schoenberg. When I yearn for a quiet field of lupine and paintbrush, and billowing clouds, I turn to Williams, or Alan Hovhaness. When I want to tap into the ineffable American Spirit, I put Copland or Ives on the turntable (And I still have one). When I want a brief encounter with the infinite, the uncertain, the painful, I look to George Crumb’s Black Angels, Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, Steve Reich’s 9/11, or an Elliot Carter string quartet. And Handel doesn’t mind sitting next to Hovhaness, and Puccini is down with Parch, and Saint Saens is okay with Satie who’s copacetic with Stockhausen, and Rachmonanoff is right on with Terry Riley.*

*I’m not sure, though that Englebert Humperdinck is happy with Engelbert Humperdinck!

This post is the result of stumbling across David Lang, young classical composer. He won the Pulitzer Prize for The Little Match Girl’s Passion. I have yet to listen to that, but I am in love with his Death Speaks album, sung by Shara Worden. Also playing on that album are Bryce Dessner of The National, young composer Nico Muhly, and Owen Pallett (I have included a clip from his new album. He’s great) and I just realized that Lang also arranged Lou Reed’s “Heroin.” a knockout, and I have included it below.

P.S. A couple of posts ago I talked about Alaskan composer John Luther Adams and his Pulitzer Prize-winning symphony performed by the Seattle Symphony at Carnegie Hall. Shortly after the New York Times ran an article about his love of baseball. I have included a link to the article. Turns out Charles Ives was a rabid baseball fan, huh.


While My Air Guitar Gently Weeps, confessions of a would-be rocker.

The author as lead singer for the Dialtones, lead singer, because, frankly, he could play no instruments. I believe I was belting out Springsteen's Pink Cadillac to the students at Westover School, circa 1986.

The author as lead singer for the Dialtones, lead singer, because, frankly, he could play no instruments. I believe I was belting out Springsteen’s Pink Cadillac to the students at Westover School, circa 1986.

As a student in Irving Utt’s 5th grade class at Central Elementary, I was faced with a difficult choice: get on a bus and travel to the high school to sign up for 6th grade band with Ed Peterson or stay behind and play softball for two hours. Although my song flute experience in 4th Grade with Charlotte Crawford had been a dismal failure (I mimed playing at the parent concert, fooling even Ed Peterson), I was excited to play a musical instrument, especially the drums. But in what would become the first in a long line of decisions based on immediate gratification, I stayed behind to play ball. And I have regretted it ever since.
Over the years I have tried piano twice; I could not for the life of me make my left hand play different notes while my right hand was busy. In college I asked for a guitar at Christmas, got it, was given a crash course in chords from my Swiss brother Andre, but walked away from it having learned two chords and the lyrics to “Blue Canadian Rockies” off the Byrds’ “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” album. I have forgotten the chords but not the lyrics. Would you like to hear me sing?
As a young teacher, sharing a house with Cliff Leight, I borrowed his brother Pete’s drum set and for one summer thrashed away to Bun E. Carlos and Cheap Trick’s version of “Ain’t That a Shame.” from Live at Bukodan. But, as I learned with the piano, my hands and feet were not programmed to work separately.
While teaching at a girl’s boarding school in Connecticut, I was cajoled by a fellow instructor into joining a faculty band, The Dial Tones. I convinced him that I could not play any instruments, so I became the lead singer. Chris, the other member of the group, couldn’t sing, but he could plunk out a few notes on the bass. It was like we were Cream for incompetents. To be fair, Devin, the mastermind behind the Dialtones, knew his away around guitar, bass, not to mention our drum machine. I did play the baseball bat on one song and in my greatest rock-n-roll moment played an organ solo on our version of Jonathon Richman’s “Modern World.” Okay, so I just plinked my finger up the scale a couple of times and then ground my knuckles over the keyboard; it was still a solo and I effin’ rocked it.
In my 64th year I still harbor rock-n-roll dreams, always will I suppose. So this Friday when the call went out for a teacher to watch the last period of band practice, I jumped at the opportunity. I had been told by the band director, Mike Mines, that I would have to do nothing, the students would run the whole show, but I was having none of that. Walking into the spacious band room with its timpani’s, marimbas, glockenspiel, drum set, my musical life flashed before my eyes. When the student leader assured me that she had everything covered, I insisted on mounting the podium, grabbing the baton, a real one, not some fake piece of wood, and leading the band through their scales. It wasn’t quite that easy, I had to be shown several times the up and down, the across to the left and right and the up and down again and again, before I was ready. But when the baton was raised, the tuba, trumpets, bassoons, clarinets, flutes, saxophones and oboe raised instruments to lips and played. It was thrilling…one and two and three and four, repeat…
After handing over the baton to the student maestro, I wandered to the back and hung out with the lone percussionist (he was wearing plastic mouse ears). While the band labored over a tune, I asked if I could play the base drum and he said, “Sure, I guess.” When I asked when I should whack it, he showed me the music and pointed to a series of notes hanging from a rack or something. I said, “Just show me,” and he did and I played brilliantly through the whole song. Beaming, I asked him how I did. He said, “Good enough.” Later, I added a triangle to a song they were practicing and afterwards I yelled, “We need more cowbells!” After banging out the opening to “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” I realized that I had overstepped and quickly dropped the cowbell, found an inconspicuous spot in the corner and sat down. The band worked its way through several versions of the execrable “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey, but even though there were odd notes and roller coaster stop-and-start rhythms, I was slack-jawed, as I always am, in the presence of people who make music. What a gift.
I am a never-say-never kind of guy, but I do believe I will never play a musical instrument; my joy, as always, will be in the listening, reveling in the melody, the dissonance, ear-blasting sonic booms, the silences, stuttering, sinuous, galloping, martial rhythms, the minor keys and three-part harmonies, the achingly sad twang, transcendent soulfulness, nihilistic bombast, rumbling, churning bass-lines, speed-of-sound virtuosity, the note held and bent until Hell freezes over. It has always been enough. It will have to do.
Here are a few artists who have made me smile, tap my toes and dance a little lately.

Public Service Broadcasting–This British duo make the kind of dance music I can go absolutely daft for. They have great fun with public service announcement snippets. You will be dancing, yes you will.

The Secret Sisters–God, there are so many great female country singers out there. I am planning a post on nothing but…

John Luther Adams–The Seattle Symphony performed a new work by John Luther Adams (Become Ocean) at Carnegie Hall, and I have included a link to the concert from NPR’s music site. I really like his work.


Lucius–The B-52s for the new milennium, not quite so frenetic

Ought–Montreal punkish, early U-2 mixed with Tom Verlaine in his Television days, all good.

In Praise of Early Morning

Sunrise at White Pass

Sunrise at White Pass

Upon entering high school, it was determined by the familial powers-that-be, that Stu and I would share a Seattle Post Intelligencer paper route. It seemed like a good gig. It was a small route in our neighborhood—piece of cake, right, easy money? Oh, so very wrong. We inherited the route from Walt Hoerath, who had a whimsical method for collecting the monthly fees from his customers. Sometimes he collected, most times he didn’t. Our little collection book was riddled with unpaid bills, and after the first month of uncooking his books, we split 52 cents. We would never make more than $28 ($14 for each of us) in the two years we trudged up and down Union, Glen and avenues A and B in the dreary pre-dawn hours.
There were the two German Shepherds that terrorized us; Stu and I fine-tuned the toss and scram and never lost any flesh. But I learned to dread the 5 a.m. alarm and the Tell-Tale Heart ticking of the clock. (I suspect that is why, today, I rise at any hour and require no alarm ever.) I bundled up for all kinds of weather and would troop down the eerie quiet streets to the old city hall on First Street, where Mr. Cody would have already dropped the papers. Sometimes serenaded by the moans of a citizen working off a binge in the jail beneath me, I would load the inky papers into my sack and start folding. To keep me company I carried a small-transistor radio; KJR was lost sonic snow, and I could only receive KIRO and KOMO and the religious station KBLE. Some mornings I got a healthy dose of Garner Ted Armstrong, a truly strange dude, or sang along to Wayne Newton’s Danke Schoen or Red Roses for a Blue Lady by the Bert Kaempfert Orchestra. On KBLE I was treated to the rantings of anti-communist blowhard Billy James Hargis or John Bircher Richard Cotton (Remember, freedom is not free, free men are not equal and equal men are not free. God Bless). But mostly, I was alone with my thoughts. In the oppressive gloom of winter, I tended toward hopelessness: I would never have a girlfriend, never become a great golfer, never have hair like John Lennon, never be popular. In early March,though, I would begin to hear the robins, wrens and chickadees, the air redolent of Japanese Cherry and daffodil. And best of all the sharp outline of the Cascade Mountains would greet me as I reached the top of the 5th Street hill. Everywhere I looked there was possibility. Stu and I palmed off the paper route on some eager-beaver sucker a couple of years later, and I reveled in my alarm-less world.
It wasn’t until our girls were toddlers that I truly embraced the early morning. I sit in the quiet house, reading my newspapers, coffee mug in hand, anticipating a new day, a day where something great will happen: I will write something I like; plan a lesson that will make my sleepy students sit up straight and say “Howdy;” I will think of something nice to do for Carol; imagine that the Mariners will win again, and again; plan a hike, a run, an outing. And even though most afternoons I return home weighed down with papers, middle-school and real-world crises, I curl up in bed with a good book, or at least an adequate book, and anticipate the dawn of a new day, a day I know brings me one day closer to death, but one that just may surprise me, change me, bless me.
I have included a few tunes that had to have been composed with morning in mind.

George Gerschwin playing “Lullaby”

Michael Nyman, “The Scent of Love” from The Piano

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The Friendly Skies are no longer all that friendly, arrrgh!

This weekend I made a quick flight to Chicago and I was reminded again, how un-fun flying has become in the new millenium. Remember cheap flights, free meals (albeit, sort of mushy), free in-flight movies, no charge for checking bags, adequate leg room, smiling stewardi? Well, you can kiss that goodbye. Outrageous prices, a tiny handful of nuts, no movies, $25 to check each bag, stern-voice attendants, no leg room, no nothin! Each of my flights was booked solid, and before boarding we were told, by stern-voiced attendants, that there would not be enough over-head bin space, so people could check bags for free, but that there would be a $25 fee if one’s bags couldn’t be fitted into the overhead, whaaaa?! On the way home, they were even more insistent, and when I got to ticketing, I was told that the overheads were filled and that we would have to check our bags–we were only half-loaded. As I often do in these pressure situations, I panicked in my haste to obey, handed over my bag and hustled on down to the plane. It was only after I had boarded, and seen that less than half the over-head space was taken, that I remembered I had put my wallet and my wife’s cell phone in the top pocked of my backpack, shit! It just seems that airline travel is just one more example of the two-tiered system evolving in the U.S. and increasingly the middle class is getting the shaft. I’m still pissed. So I have included to some great flying songs to bring me off the ledge, and one viral video of the cast from Lion King breaking out in song on a Virgin Airways flight, a cool thing, although some of the people on board seemed puzzled and horrified. Me, I could use a little serenade before takeoff, and a smile for God’s sake!

Jason IsbellFlying over Water

Flying Burrito BrothersSix Days on the Road

Neil FinnFlying in the Face of Love

DonovanFat Angel

Country Joe-Flying

Cast of Lion King breaking into song on a Virgin Air flight