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"And here is Earth, a bright-blue jewel glittering in our modest galaxy, wandering in the darkness like a tourist in a bad neighborhood, about to be mugged." From "Stephen Hawking is a Peeping Tom," in Essays.

The Critical Mass

The Christians of Wrath

My Friend Bill and My Friend Connie were at the house last week when we got to talking about the epidemic of revelations showing men in powerful positions sexually harassing and assaulting women. And what’s behind these religious leaders who were throwing their support behind the accused child sex predator, Roy Moore? How could a guy like that even get as close as he did Tuesday night to the U.S. Senate?

And then Bill and Connie – they read books together, it’s kinda cute – remembered a scene early in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath that might supply some answers.

My copy of the book was serendipitously on a shelf within arm’s reach, and Connie quickly found the relevant passage. It’s when Tom Joad, just out of prison after serving four years for murder, is walking down the road to his parents’ home. He comes across a ragged-looking guy sitting beneath a tree and recognizes him as the reverend who baptized him. Jim Casey, now a former reverend. They share a pint of whiskey, and Casey explains his downfall, on pages yellowed with age:

“Tell you what – I used to get the people jumpin’ an’ talkin’ in tongues, an’ glory shoutin’ till they just fell down an’ passed out. An’ some I’d baptize to bring ’em to. And then – you know what I’d do? I’d take one of them girls out to the grass, an I’d lay with her. Done it ever’ time. Then I’d feel bad, an’ I’d pray an’ pray, but it didn’t do no good. Come the nex’ time, them an’ me was full of the sperit, I’d do it again. I figgered there just wasn’t no hope for me, an’ I was a damned ol’ hypocrite. But I didn’t mean to be.”

So Jim Casey was using Jesus to take advantage of young women. A man of power, abusing his position. But then, a few paragraphs later, he insists that it wasn’t just he who was using Jesus.

“I got to thinkin’ like this – ‘Here’s me preachin’ grace. And here’s these people getting’ grace so hard they’re jumpin’ and shoutin’. Now they say layin’ up with a girl comes from the devil. But the more grace a girl got in her, the quicker she wants to go out in the grass.’ And I got to thinkin’ how in hell, s’cuse me, how can the devil get in when a girl is so full of the Holy Sperit that it’s spoutin’ out of her nose and ears. You’d think that’d be one time when the devil didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell. But there it was.”

Joad’s been in prison for four years, he interrupts and says maybe he should have been a preacher, because he’s been a long time without a woman and, “It’s gonna take some catchin’ up.”

Casey continues to ponder the hypocrisy. “An’ I says, ‘Why is it that when a fella ought to be just about mule-ass proof against sin, an’ all full up of Jesus, why is it that’s the time a fella gets to fingerin’ his pants buttons?’”

As Casey and Joad share the whiskey, Casey says he maybe has the answer. Who’s responsible for right and wrong in the world? “I figgered, ‘Why do we got to hang it all on God or Jesus? Maybe,’ I figgered, ‘maybe it’s all men an’ all women we love; maybe that’s the Holy Sperit – the human sperit – the whole shebang. Maybe all men got one big soul everybody’s a part of.’”

Yep, that’s what I figgered when I was hearing folks from Alabama proclaiming on news reports that Roy Moore wasn’t a middle-aged man preying on teenage girls at the mall, that he’s a good Christian man. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. They’re hiding behind God and Jesus, so they don’t have to answer to their own conscious. Yep, that’s what I figger.

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The Critical Mass

Regan, Deming and Piper: The Spring Chickens. Photo by Sue Rogers.

The World Doesn’t Owe You Anything

With decisions come consequences.

That was the theme running through my head while lying awake in bed at 3 a.m. Wednesday. The gray-matter residue from a couple of Tuesday night’s entertainments.

It started at The Little theater with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. A murder mystery that doesn’t give you what you’re looking for: A solution. Instead, the story of a woman who rents three billboards outside of town and uses them to ask why the rape and murder of her daughter hasn’t been solved offers brilliant acting by Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell. Their characters are complex, their motivations not always honorable, the story they are caught up in is multi-layered. The rape and murder is the tragedy that sets off a series of decisions made by these characters, decisions that lead to a Rubix’s Cube of unexpected consequences.

We drifted from the theater into The Little Café, where The Spring Chickens were playing. An acoustic trio of Connie Deming, Steve Piper and Scott Regan, whose show Open Tunings airs every weekday morning on WRUR-FM (88.5). Regan and Piper also play in Watkins & the Rapiers, currently holding down a Monday-night residency at The Little. That band is notable for its frequently irreverent and sardonic songwriting. But with The Spring Chickens, Piper and Regan present their music with a slightly more serious tone, even if the between-song banter between the three remains charming and funny.

But something’s weighing on The Spring Chickens, and heavily. Piper – a wry, amusing fellow – spoke of the mood of anger and depression that has settled over the country, particularly in these last few days, as the news grows increasingly alarming. Deming sang a song she wrote this summer, “How Did We Get Here?” It’s a dark one, about deception in a relationship, but one verse makes reference to “the liar in the White House.”

And Regan, too. He generally limits his social and political observations to an insightful line or two, then moves on. But Tuesday night, you could see that his dismay in what we’re witnessing, what we’re living through right now, is something he can no longer contain. He struggled to find the right words, then found them: How sad it is, “Watching our country get taken apart.” By the hands of Trump, whose malignant narcissism and obsession with enriching himself are leading to decisions with damning consequences for us all.

And then Regan played his song, “The World Doesn’t Owe You Anything.”

The Spring Chickens. Speaking truth to power.

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The Critical Mass

Roy Moore! Help is on the way!

Apparently, I’m told, I’ve earned millions of dollars over the course of my lifetime. I blew it all on booze, women and movies.

I was unaware of this reality until the past weekend, when the crusty Iowa senator, Charles Grassley, was explaining the Republicans’ new tax bill to the Des Moines Register. “I think not having the estate tax recognizes the people that are investing,” Grassley said. “As opposed to those that are just spending every darn penny they have, whether it’s on booze or women or movies.”

The estate tax applies only to the very, very rich. Like senators. That could have been me, or you. Maybe we could have been senators if we hadn’t spent every darn penny on booze or women or movies. And, without a worry in our world, we could have helped protect the very rich not only by eliminating the estate tax, but by creating a bill bursting with other benefits for rich people and corporations. A bill recognizing the people who matter, the people who are investing.

Today, half of Americans qualify as poor or low income. A situation that might not exist if they weren’t blowing their $7.25-an-hour, minimum-wage paychecks on food. Or blowing it on child care, which wouldn’t be a problem if women just stayed at home rather than worked. The rich folks’ investments in themselves will trickle down to those poor families, in due time. Like, never.

I’m lucky, I guess I’m middle class, if that means anything anymore. I must be making bad choices. Senator Grassley could rightly point to the $9,000 that I blew this fall on medical bills. Wouldn’t that money have been more-wisely invested in the stock market, rather throwing it away on my health, thanks to workplace medical-insurance coverage that was growing increasingly useless each year?

Yeah, the cost of living is a killer. It’s been more than a decade since my sporadic 1 percent raises kept up with life. Thankfully, I was laid off in September, so I don’t have to worry any more about my wages possibly undercutting the dividends of the company’s stockholders.

The movies, that’s a problem. The house needs painting. It’s probably an $8,000 job. It’ll be much easier on my mind tonight to go out and blow $8 on Three Billboards at The Little theater.

Booze, that’s a problem. I recently blew $500 on the 12-year-old car I drive. It has 230,000 miles on it. I could have bought 10 bottles of excellent scotch if it weren’t for those new brakes. Next time, I’ll make a better decision.

Perhaps help is on the way for those of us who show poor judgment. It looks like next week Roy Moore will be elected to the senate. The guy who was dating high-school girls when he was a 35-year-old man. Women? Especially underage ones? That’s not a problem in Alabama.

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The Critical Mass

What’s the matter with Alabama?

The two of us had arrived early at a downtown Rochester hotel, and the room reserved for the breakfast meeting with a handful of invited guests was locked. We stood in front of the door as a hotel employee wandered off to find a key.

“You look really tired,” I said.

He admitted that the week’s travel schedule had been pretty rough.

“Well, let’s sit while we wait,” I said.

So Al Franken and I sat down. On the floor.

This was in April of 2006. Franken was in town for a live broadcast of Air America’s The Al Franken Show at The Little Theater. I thanked Franken for his help on a story I had written some years earlier about the comedian A. Whitney Brown. The two had worked together on Saturday Night Live, and Brown had told me that Franken was very supportive of his battles with drug and alcohol addiction. I called Franken’s New York City office and left a message, asking if he’d comment. My expectations were low; Franken was a busy man, many people wanted a piece of his time. But to my surprise, Franken called me back.

Sitting there on the hotel hallway floor, Franken said he’d returned my call because Brown was his friend. Then we talked a little about the rumors that Franken was considering a run for the U.S. Senate seat from Minnesota, rumors he had neither confirmed nor denied. He then went on for a few minutes about what he’d hope to accomplish as a senator.

I said something like, “You know, you’ve pretty much admitted right here that you’re going to run.” He just smiled.

A few hours later, 300 people in the theater and a large group standing outside, hoping to get in, heard Franken dedicate his entire show to voices from Rochester. This was in the midst of the George W. Bush presidency, and there was plenty to talk about. Congresswoman Louise Slaughter and Mayor Robert Duffy were there. Eric Massa, a Navy veteran running for a seat in the 29th Congressional district. David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize-winning financial writer. Rochester Institute of Technology professor Robert Manning, discussing predatory lending practices. And Dr. Mark Noble of the University of Rochester, explaining the importance of stem-cell research.

Ten months later, Franken officially announced he was running for the Senate. He won by the slimmest of margins, and was re-elected six years later. This despite ridicule from some folks that a guy who’d been catapulted onto the national stage because of his career in television wasn’t qualified for the job. Yet it happened, just as we’ve since seen that even a fellow who is famous for shouting “You’re fired!” at TV reality-show apprentices can some day be president.

So now we see Franken as one of the prominent names in this astounding wave of powerful men being accused of sexually assaulting women. And I am dismayed, not only because my two brief interactions with Franken were so positive, but because I like what he’s done in the senate since then. He’s taken the job seriously, and worked hard on behalf of issues that are important to me.

I look at all of this news through several lenses. Virtually all of these men come from the worlds of media, entertainment and politics. And almost all of the accusations against the media and entertainment figures had resulted in firings, resignations and the end of careers: Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Garrison Keillor, Russell Simmons, Charlie Rose, Mark Halperin…

But politicians such as Franken, John Conyers, Roy Moore and Donald Trump – George H.W. Bush even! – have not retreated into the weeds.

Here’s another lens to use when examining this news: Democrats and progressive-leaning figures on that list – with the exception of Conyers – are apologizing for their actions. Whether you think the apologies go far enough is debatable, but those men are at least taking some responsibility for their actions. Republicans and conservatives have chosen a different tactic. They are denying, denigrating the women accusers and attacking the media for reporting the story.

Perspective seems important, but I can’t decide where we should be standing when looking at sexual harassment and assault. Is Franken equal to Moore? Is Weinstein equal to Keillor? As someone who’s never been sexually harassed or assaulted, I wonder if I even have the right to express an opinion on the issue.

A few days ago, My Friend Bill passed along this essay by a progressive activist, G. K. Potter, “A Survivor’s Defense of Al Franken.” I don’t know the details of her experience, but Potter does identify herself as a sexual-assault survivor. You can read her entire essay here, but these are some of the words that caught me:

I’m sick of my traumas and the traumas of other survivors being exploited for political gain and emotional satisfaction on both the left and the right. Physically. Sick.

Potter charges Leeann Tweeden, the women who first accused Franken of assault – several others have since stepped forward – of taking “the traumas of the women and children that have been the true victims of sexual violence and used them for her own personal gains and the political goals of the Republican Party.” She writes:

Al Franken’s tasteless joke didn’t make her fear for her life. It didn’t make her burn the clothes she was wearing that night. It didn’t make her scrub herself clean in the shower until her skin tore off. This joke didn’t keep her up shaking and puking and sobbing on the floor of a shower as she bled down a drainpipe. It didn’t send her to the clinic for STD tests.

Al Franken’s joke didn’t crush her notion of who she was or how she could walk in this world. This joke didn’t give her PTSD or depression or any of the lasting forms of struggle that true rape and assault victims must face minute by minute. It hasn’t informed every relationship she’s had since.

Potter points out that the USO tours that Franken and Tweeden were a part of are highly sexualized shows meant to entertain the mostly male members of the armed services. They have been since World War II, and on into the Bob Hope years, which we used to watch on television back home. Which makes me wonder: Should the U.S. government be subsidizing such attitudes as we read news reports of rampant sexual assault in our military?

And Potter then returns to the idea that this is political:

It clearly cannot be denied that sexual violence exists on both sides of the political aisle, but it is the Republican Party that has perfected the technique of weaponizing and exploiting these traumas for their own personal gain.  

The idea that Franken is not the same as Moore resonates with me. But so too does the idea that no level of sexual harassment and assault is tolerable.

Here’s another aspect of the debate that I’m seeing. This isn’t a new problem. Powerful men exploiting women has been happening for centuries. Yet this new wave of outrage – led by women – appears to be resonating with the country. Can we find a way to focus this outrage as well on other issues that Americans are clearly in favor of? Gun control, health care that’s readily accessible to all as it is in European countries, and closing the vast disparity between the rich and the poor?

What drives a corporation such as NBC to dump Matt Lauer, or Netflix to cancel Kevin Spacey’s television show, is the fear that associating with them will hurt their product. It’s economic populism that might work.

Everywhere except Alabama, where the accused pedophile Moore may win a senate seat because, as Trump says, that’s better than losing it to a Democrat.

What’s the matter with Alabama?

Do you still believe these issues aren’t about politics?

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The Critical Mass

The Jane Mutiny celebrates The Beatles at WXXI. Photo by Sandy Embury Gianniny.

 

The Persistence of Memory

Connie Deming was playing at the Little Café Saturday night when a stranger came up to me. “I loved your stuff,” he said, and handed me a glass of wine. That’s been happening a lot since I got laid off by the local newspaper on Sept. 16. It seems like half the city is trying to get me drunk.

But I’m pleased they remember.

I’ve been writing a lot. Reading. Cooking. Doing laundry. Getting my web site updated. And going out. At Connie’s show that night, My Friend Bob told me about how he was walking through his living room while his granddaughter was watching television. Supergirl was on. Supergirl, Bob noted, has pierced ears: “How do you pierce Supergirl’s ears?” And yes, Bob’s right. If you’re aware of the Super family genes, bullets bounce off of these people. So how do you poke a hole in Supergirl’s ear lobe?

How could the writers of the show not remember that? Bob did. And he’s not even a fan.

WXXI was putting on a Beatles celebration later that night, showing the documentary The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years, followed by a half-hour live broadcast of the Rochester band The Jane Mutiny playing Beatles songs. “Across the Universe,” “Hey Jude” and a nice version of “Blackbird” that was hard to categorize; a little pop, a little R&B, a little soul. Everyone at the studio was remembering The Beatles, who haven’t been a band since 1970. My Friend Ken was talking about how he’d been going through some things at his mother’s house and found his old Beatles bubble-gum cards. He seemed a little more excited about it than a middle-aged man should be.

Mom’s been visiting this past week. I picked her up in Cleveland and, on the drive to Rochester, slipped a CD into the player. It was a new release, Triptych, a singer doing old songs with a big band. Mom loved it. She wanted to buy the record. All week she’s been talking about it, except she can’t ever remember the singer’s name. “Who’s my new favorite guy?” she keeps asking.

“Bob Dylan, Mom.”

She’s 88 years old, and doing pretty well. But we have some odd moments. When she visits, Fox News is off limits. I’m dismayed at how those people have distorted the worldview of this otherwise nice old lady, although she does seem to have finally accepted the news that Barack Obama was not born in Kenya. When Mom’s brain is not cluttered up with weird conspiracy theories, she does display an unexpected ability to recall ancient facts.

“Remember that little girl who disappeared in Cleveland?”

“No. Recently?”

“A while ago. Beverly Potts.”

I fired up the Google. And there she was, dozens of posts about Beverly Potts. Wikipedia, even:

Beverly Rose Potts (born April 15, 1941) was an American girl from Cleveland, Ohio, who in 1951 became the subject of a famous missing persons case when she disappeared only a few blocks from her home, after attending a show in a nearby park. She has never been found and her disappearance remains unsolved.

Mom can’t keep Bob Dylan’s name straight, but she remembers the name of a little girl who disappeared 66 years ago.

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The Critical Mass

Why we need clouds

During the Thanksgiving morning walk in the woods with the dog, she did as she always does, trotting 15 or 20 yards ahead of me, frequently glancing over her shoulder, checking to see if I’m still there. She has the same look on her face that I’ve seen on all of my dogs over the years when they’re in the woods: CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS? THIS IS THE BEST DAY EVER!

As we shuffled through the fallen leaves, I thought about how disconnected we were from the world at that moment. Neither of us had a phone. There was no way for anyone to contact us, or track us, or direct-market sell us something through a crafty set of algorithms. No GPS or device for us to ask, “Where the hell are we, Siri?” No news, no Trump.

Disconnected from the world. It’s a good place to be.

It was kind of a cloudy morning.

I thought about how technology has changed the way we tell stories. Remember how things used to work in Gotham City? Commissioner Gordon would run up to the roof and turn on the Bat-Signal, a giant searchlight outfitted with the silhouette of a bat, and shine it on a cloud overhead. It was always cloudy at night in Gotham City. And miles away Bruce Wayne, wearing a smoking jacket, would happen to be standing by one of the hundreds of windows in Wayne Manor, enjoying the view, when he’d spot the Bat-Signal on the cloud, and off he and Robin the Boy Wonder would go.

Today, you’d have Commission Gordon saying, “What, the Riddler is back in town? I’ve got Batman’s cell phone on my speed dial.”

Takes all of the drama, and the haunting imagery, out of the story.

Not that important, I suppose. Just something I was thinking about on Thanksgiving morning.

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The Critical Mass

After 6,000 years, civilization agrees on one thing: No eye gouging

Men have been in charge of what we recognize as civilization for about 6,000 years. The results have not been encouraging.

Men created war and slavery. Men are responsible for creating the mechanisms that have created a rich and powerful business class, a minuscule sliver of the total population, that rules in a self-serving manner over the rest of us.

The news of the past few weeks has been dominated by reports of men in powerful positions sexually harassing women. Men have repressed women for centuries, manipulating the biological reality that women are the child-bearers into meaning they are also primarily responsible for child-rearing.

The lobbyist for the gun-manufacturing business, the National Rifle Association, is run by men.

Men captained the Titanic and the Hindenburg, shot JFK, rode with the KKK, killed Bambi’s mother and led an armed insurrection against the U.S. government in 1861. Mein Kampf was written by a man (albeit a man with one testicle). Men ordered the Ohio National Guard to shoot at unarmed Kent State University students and purposely crashed Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 into the Indian Ocean. Men planned and approved the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing at least 129,000 people, most of them women, children and the elderly.

Men led the Donner Party into a dangerous shortcut through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where they were trapped by storms in the winter of 1846-47. Half of the 87 pioneers died, with some of the survivors resorting to cannibalism.

Men on the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott case that slaves were private property. Men withheld the right of American women to vote until 1920, and still do not allow women to vote in Saudi Arabia and Vatican City.

American men conspired with Russians to influence the last U.S. presidential election.

The American president – a racist, misogynist, bigot, prolific liar and corrupt business cheat – is a man.

Men are in charge of the Cleveland Browns, who it appears will not win a game this season.

Men wrote some rules – no eye gouging! – and charged money to watch two people competing in boxing and then mixed martial arts, anti-social behavior that would result in the combatants’ arrest if it occurred on a city sidewalk.

Men have distorted cultural values. The most-overrated band in the history of rock, Kiss, is a men’s club celebrating juvenile behavior. A male executive at Decca Records passed on signing a little-known English band, The Beatles.

Adam Sandler, who’s starred in some of the worst films in history, is a man. The Waterboy. Jack and Jill. You Don’t Mess With the Zohan. Little Nicky. Spanglish.

Is any of this the sign of an advanced civilization? The evidence is overwhelmingly against that conclusion. After 6,000 years, it’s time to turn over the keys to women.

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The Critical Mass

Prog circus: Arthur Brown’s Kingdom Come.

 

Prog rock is crushed beneath the pendulum

The challenge came via Facebook from My Friend Patrick. “Jeff Spevak, what say you?” Followed by a link to The Atlantic magazine, and contributing editor James Parker’s review of David Weigel’s book The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock.

The headline: “The Whitest Music Ever.”

The subhead: “Prog rock was audacious, innovative — and awful.”

What say I, Patrick? That story’s off to a bad start. Whitest Music Ever? What about The Ray Conniff Singers? Or Lawrence Welk, fer crissakes? And while audacious and innovative, prog wasn’t awful. Mid-’70s radio pop, that was awful. Remember “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero?”

Weigel, a reporter for The Washington Post, loves prog rock, Parker hates it. That’s the start of a good argument. But the parameters of the debate are ill defined. There is some confusion as to what is prog rock. Rush, yes. Emerson, Lake & Palmer, yes. Yes, yes.

But is Jethro Tull prog rock, or merely a heavy version of Fairport Convention?

Is Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells prog rock, as postulated by Parker, or merely orchestral New Age?

I am neither hater nor fan of prog. I fall right in the middle, which makes me the perfect referee in this longhair-pulling fight.

Here’s a key piece is testimony cited by first Weigel in his love note, and then Parker in his attack:

“We’re a European group,” declared the lead singer of proto-proggers The Nice in 1969, “so we’re improvising on European structures … We’re not American Negros, so we can’t really improvise and feel the way they can.”

OK, so what’s wrong with that? Other than the awkward racial generalization. Prog does indeed have some classical to it, and classical is not much for improvisation. But a lot of prog – particularly King Crimson – does resort to jazz, which is all about improv.

Much of this genre dissection runs to personal taste. Rush and Yes, and their rosters of excellent musicians, lose me with the insectoid whine of the lead singers. And while Rush is hailed for its sci-fi themes, as an occasional reader of the genre I find the band’s ideas to be overly-worn territory.

In this argument, labels are handed down like prison sentences. At what point does psychedelia become prog? The Nice are labeled “proto-proggers.” If Parker is going cite Moby Grape as prog rock, he should certainly concede that The Nice, which debuted the same year as Moby Grape, is full-blown prog. The Nice’s keyboardist, Keith Emerson, moved on to Emerson, Lake & Palmer, a trio certainly atop the Mount Rushmore of prog. But ELP made the leap to nonsense for Parker after Emerson discovered the Moog synthesizer. To Parker, rock loses its integrity with the introduction of too much stuff. It was an overdose of the musicians’ creative juices as “like mad professors, they threw everything in there: the ideas, the complexity, the guitars with two necks, the groove-bedeviling tempo shifts.”

He sees even the stage presence of prog rockers as the result of too much thinking, citing “their priestly robes” as pretentious. But weren’t punk rockers in their artfully torn, black T-shirts and studded wristbands pretentious as well?

Popular music is ultimately a swing of the pendulum. Parker finds the appropriate quote in Weigel’s book: “Every new artistic movement rebels against whatever came right before it.” History bears that out. Sometimes the pendulum’s swing is generational, as rock gave way to hip-hop. Sometimes it’s a commercial wave, as pop surrendered the airwaves to metal or when disco was pushed aside by punk. The Ramones helped stomp to death the final strings of Procol Harum. In bewailing the increasingly fidgety nature of prog rock, Parker points out, “To all this, the relative crudity of punk rock was simply a biological corrective — a healing, if you like.”

Maybe. It could even happen within a band, as Genesis found when it lost Peter Gabriel and handed the microphone to its drummer, Phil Collins. From art rock to pop. Of course, none of this allows any credit to the teenage brain, when it’s most attuned to the miracle of music, and is open to diversity and setting its own timeline of discovery. I discovered the glam rebellion of The New York Dolls and the psychedelic prog of Arthur Brown’s Kingdom Come in the same summer of 1974. The same year that Bruce Springsteen spoke for me. Perhaps in a search for something I’ve lost, I still listen to those vinyl albums to this day.

And really, wasn’t prog rock’s downfall This is Spinal Tap? In the 1984 satire Rob Reiner’s character Marty DiBergi, who’s shooting a documentary on the band, reads aloud a review of Spinal Tap’s latest album: “This pretentious ponderous collection of religious rock psalms is enough to prompt the question, ‘What day did the Lord create Spinal Tap, and couldn’t he have rested on that day too?’”

Thereafter, it became impossible to take seriously any long-haired guys.

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The Critical Mass

People. Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em.

 

Connie Deming and Martha O’Connor. Photo by Aaron Winters.

People. Meh…

Crowds, that was the word for the weekend. I needed some new black jeans for Saturday night’s show, “What If Everyone In Rochester Wrote the Same Song?” So Friday afternoon, clutching 10- and 20-percent off Veterans Day coupons in hand, I drove over to the big box store to score a deal. As did everyone else. The parking lot was jammed. The lines in front of the two cash-register setups were – this is no typo – each 40 yards long.

At this point, sane people turn around and go home. I proceeded to the menswear department. My goal: Two pairs of jeans. This proved impossible. Crowds had spent hours pawing through the shelves, searching for just the right relaxed-fit jeans. Any organization was long lost, articles of clothing were flopped in piles like drunken sailors at last call. After 20 minutes I finally found the right size of boot-cut style and fled to what looked like the shortest of the two cash register lines.

I was now a prisoner to the comments of the people in front and behind me. It was like those stories they used to tell us in high school political science class, about how communism wasn’t working because in the Soviet Union people were always lining up for bread and vodka.

“This is ridiculous,” a woman snapped. “This is worse than Black Friday.” But she didn’t give up her place in line.

“Oh, that’s cute,” a grandmother-type said, pointing out a polka-dot top emblazoned with the outline of a schnauzer dog, definitely cheesy, not cute. Another captured customer idly recited the various Christmas-gift opportunities tantalizingly displayed on shelves as we crept by. “Peanut brittle…” “Mixed nuts…” “Milk-chocolate reindeer…”

An amiable codger strolled past and, joking with a woman, pointed at me: “That’s quite a line, he was clean-shaven when he got here.” I’ve been growing this beard for a year.

Fifty minutes later, I reached the goal. “It’s been this way since 9:30 in the morning,” the woman working the check-out line said.

Connie Deming makes a surprise appearance as Dusty Springfield as Martha O’Connor and I perform “How Did We Get Here?” Photo by Julie Gelfand.

Enough of people. We bailed on the Joni Mitchell tribute Friday night and took an offer for dinner at Tommy and Jen’s house. Dick Storms was there too, he was to be one of Saturday’s performers at “What If Everyone In Rochester Wrote the Same Song?” Storms’ version is a casual re-working of a song he’d already written and performed in the past, “Three Billion Hairless Monkeys.” It’s about too many people on the planet, and the havoc we create.

I got some sleep. And faced yet more people Saturday. Crowds of them.

At noon, J.D. McPherson was playing an in-store show at the Record Archive Backroom Lounge. The place was packed. McPherson’s from Oklahoma, but he’s built a strong Rochester following through a series of incendiary concerts over the last few years. Plus his drummer is former Rochesterian Jason Smay, of the Hi-Risers. This show was full band, rocking. The perfect example of a rock band as a well-oiled machine.

And then that night, “What If Everyone In Rochester Wrote the Same Song?” Nineteen different versions of the same song title, “How Did We Get Here?” It wasn’t sold out, but Hochstein Performance Hall looked pretty good with about 300 people on hand. Especially for the closing number: Storms had about 200 plastic maracas that were passed around as we danced through the aisles, then stormed the stage. So we were pretty adrenalized when we headed over to Tapas 177 for the post-show party. And again, the people: The bar was shoulder-to-shoulder, grooving to the booming salsa music.

By then the big-box annoyance, the curmudgeon dust, had long cleared from my head. The music did it. And the excellent people, all working to make something really cool happen.

In fact, I was so at ease that I easily dealt with a near catastrophe in the midst of my version of “How Did We Get Here?” I’d cleverly drafted the best singer in Rochester, Connie Deming, to make a surprise cameo. And when Steve Piper actually broke his electric guitar in the middle of the song, he shifted so smoothly to a back-up he’d brought along that neither my duet partner Martha O’Connor or I noticed what was happening.

After the show, a woman asked me if my version of the song was a true story. Did I once fall in love with a woman working at a record store who turned out to be gay?

No, never happened. Not a true story. I’m a writer, don’t believe everything I write. Except: Don’t shop the big boxes.

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The Critical Mass

Bassist Brian Williams tries to interpret a lyrics sheet as drummer Marty York looks for his drink during rehearsals for “How Did We Get Here?”

“How Did We Get Here?” gets to the big stage

What If Everyone In Rochester Wrote the Same Song? It’s gone from an amusing, backroom challenge among a handful of local singer-songwriters at the Flipside Bar and Grill’s open mic night to sold-out shows at the Fringe Festival to, this Saturday, the big stage at Hochstein Performance Hall. Eighteen local musicians presenting their versions of this year’s challenge title: “How Did We Get Here?”

Two years ago the challenge was “Don’t Go Drinkin’ on an Empty Heart,” a Fringe Fest sell-out at Bernunzio Uptown Music. Last year’s song, “You’ll Thank Me Later,” sold out two nights at Bernunzio. As Dick Storms closed out the second of those shows, his fellow performers stormed the aisle and danced to his gospel shouts. At that point, as much as everyone loved the intimacy of the Bernunzio shows, it seemed the next step was to try a larger venue.

I’ve heard about eight of this year’s songs. They’re wildly diverse and – not unexpected for a city stocked with talent – stunningly executed. At Tuesday night’s rehearsal, a few of the musicians were running through their creations one last time. Storms’ Eastern European apocalyptic warning. The Cole Porter stylings of Paul Nunes, amusing musings from Kerry Regan, the austere imagery of Lisa Winter. Scott Regan, the host of “Open Tunings” on WRUR-FM (88.5) is one of a handful of musicians returning for the third time, with perhaps the most-stylistically surprising effort: A rumination on vehicles that is part Beat Generation spoken word, part high school driver-education film.

This thing started in the basement of Jeff Riales, who’s probably the best songwriter in the city. Scott Regan was nosing around down there when he spotted a line in one of Riales’ notebooks. Riales said he’d never finished the song, and told Regan he could have “Don’t go drinkin’ on an empty heart.” So Regan wrote the first one, which he presented one night at the Flipside. After nearly two-dozen local songwriters had picked up the challenge, Sarah Long Hendershot took notice. She’s a singer-songwriter herself, her band The Jane Mutiny has a show Friday at The Little Café and a guest-filled, post-Thanksgiving Black Friday there on Nov. 24. She correctly figured there were enough strong versions of “Don’t Go Drinkin’ on an Empty Heart” for a show; She’s now organized three of these annual events. They sometimes include her own version of the challenge song (Riales even finished his “Don’t Go Drinking on an Empty Heart” for that first one), and a running storyline throughout the show, with this year’s host local comedian/actor Michael Kolden. Who I’m told was once in a play about eating underwear, so he’s perfect.

Saturday’s list of performers features familiar faces such as Connie Deming, Kraszman & Fishwife, Anonymous Willpower, Fred Vine, Maria Gillard and Greg Hassett, who was a part of last year’s house band, but is stepping to the front of the stage with his own song. The house band this year includes the scene-omnipresent Brian Williams on bass. The band is also drummer Marty York and guitarist Steve Piper, part of the night’s clean sweep of members of Watkins & the Rapiers: The two Regans, Rick McRae backing a couple of songs on trombone and accordion and Tom Whitmore, yet another singer-songwriter who’s taken on the challenge for the third time.

Along with the WIEIRWTSS veterans, I heard new voices at Tuesday’s rehearsal. Chris Bond – Scott Regan compared his song to Tony Joe White. Kevin Reed – a 17-year-old guitarist whose version was like a lost Wilco track. And Madeleine McQueen, a mere 21 years old, but with the biggest voice in the room. Like a few of the songwriters, she interpreted “How Did We Get Here?” as an invitation to comment on today’s political atmosphere: “The only light in the house is from the TV,” a metaphor for an isolated president whose only connection to the world is watching Fox News.

And there are a few musicians I have yet to hear: Phil Broikos, Mike Muscarella and Bob Bunce and Rural Delivery.

Another three-time performer is Martha O’Connor. Once again O’Connor’s much-needed, untethered spirit will join me onstage. An odd place for a guy who has never performed until well past mid-life crisis, but I’ve managed to crawl under the chicken wire and get into this event each time. My songwriting career now spans 3½ songs, although they’re not really songs. They’re spoken-word pieces. Stories. And this year, my goal was simple: I was going to write one where none of the characters gets killed.

That was harder than I expected.

The show starts at 7 p.m. and is $15 advance, $20 the day of the show, tickets available at Record Archive, Bop Shop and brownpapertickets.com.

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Hit the “Subscribe” button on the under-renovation web site jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

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