Strays

If you’ve read any of this blog, you’ve met Deanna Collings. Meet Jackson, the other star of The Hot Girl.

Long Beach, CA. Summer 1981

“Sky? Whoa. S’up, kid? You’re a ways from San Diego County.” Jackson backed away from the door of his apartment to let his ex-neighbor by. “Your mom know you’re here?” He recognized the electric guitar case almost as big as the girl, took in the dirty converses along with the red eyes, pink nose and windblown hair. “Hey, hey. Whoa for real to you.” He put out his hand and tried to stop the giant, filthy gray dog right on her heels who ignored him, followed her inside, sniffed up his small living room and flopped on the old hardwood under the open living room window.

“S’up yourself, Jackson. No. Mom doesn’t know…I took the bus. I hate San Diego. Fucking hate it. And I, well not me, some total jerkface broke my guitar and it’s all mom’s fault because this jerkface she was dating has this kid, he’s the first jerkface I said, and he twisted the tuning keys too much and some other stuff and the whammy bar is all loose and now my guitar is all messed up and will never be okay.”

“Broken axe is no reason to bail on home. You know you can call me, we’ll deal. What else you got makes a bus ride from SD worth it?”

“Mom said I was stupid for wanting to play softball. With you. But everybody says I’m good. And I really need help with my summer school English teacher, Jackson, ‘cause she hates me. Everybody messes with me all the time down there and everybody hates me…” She leaned her electric guitar case on the couch, sat down next to it, started to snuffle. Jackson didn’t like to deal with women in their twenties to nineties crying. Almost thirteen broke his heart.

“Coke, Sky? I have the brownies you hipped me to from Stenson’s, some stale cinnamon rolls Logan brought from the good Lucky’s in Brentwood, and Oreos.”

“Coke. Please. And an Oreo?” She huge snuffled. He set a box of Kleenex next to her on the way to the fridge, dropped the storyboard for the commercial he’d been working on in the kitchen. Like him, it wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry.

“I like your new couches, Jackson. And clean pillows and stuff. Dash’s stuff was gross. I’m sorry I’m here, but I couldn’t do it anymore, and you’re like the only real runaway I ever met. So…” The tears came again, big and round, without noise.

“I’m not a real runaway, Sky. I guess I was, in a way. I waited so long to leave I had to run and I did do a pretty bunk job of it.” He squeezed her shoulder, handed her a Coke with ice and a straw in a tall, real glass, set the Oreos on the end table. He’d helped her through enough homework afternoons when she’d lived next door to know Sky and one Oreo wasn’t going to happen.

“Cool!” She snuffled again. “Real glass? For me?” She looked at him, big red eyes and a little bit of snotty nose. She started to wipe it all on her sleeve, he caught it, gave her a dish towel with a damp corner he’d brought with the Cokes, nudged the Kleenex box toward her.

“Not much longer on the glass, kid. Twelve is done and you’re done. I save the plastic ones for grownups.”

“Then I won’t have another birthday.”

“Yeah, you will. You can lie and tell me you’re twelve when you’re not. I forget about birthdays and how many of them. Stupid, huh?”

“Yeah, kinda. ‘Cause everybody has one. Mom says hers have stopped but that’s BS. Don’t tell, but she has gray hairs now. She has to dye them.”

“Call her for me? You might be responsible for some of those gray hairs.”

“‘Kay. In a minute.” They sat in silence with their Cokes, interrupted by occasional snuffle recovery nose blowing.

“Where’d you get the dog?”

“From around the corner by the bus stop. Like it was waiting for me.”

“He stinks.”

“Yeah, but she’s really nice, and she scared off the Deja Vu parking lot pervs.” Sky tossed a twisted off Oreo top to the dog who caught and inhaled it.

“Jesus.” Jackson leaned onto his knees, put his hand on top of the case. “Show me your guitar?”

“Yeah. I’m sorry he broke it. Jerkface. I haven’t been to my lesson in two whole weeks ’cause I… I… ”

“Didn’t know how to explain it without bustin’ Mom’s scene?”

“She’s never real happy much except for you gettin’ her hired down there, so…”

“That’s between you and I. You told her, though?”

“Yeah.” She popped the case latches, lifted the lid. He expected a hanging headstock, splinters, guitar guts. What he got were three broken strings, a bent tuning key and a loose whammy bar from the missing strings.

“Nothing major, but it’s still a pisser, huh? Only a head case would mess with your axe that way. What’d your mom say?”

“She said one day I’d understand that girls need some attention certain kinds of ways and she, well, she was sorry and she’d wait till I was older. For men and stuff to be in the house again and everything, and she was sorry, too, ‘cause anybody who’d break my guitar was stupid and maybe dangerous and I didn’t need to be around people like that.”

“Good for her.” He waited, let her snuffle a couple of times.

“Mom said I was the only thing she ever did right, not letting me be her ‘nother abortion, and nothing better ever happen to me ‘cause I was her gift. Her one little ray of hope that someday being a girl wouldn’t be so screwed up, even if I cuss too much and I get mad at people for acting stupid.” She snuffled, smaller this time. “Can you believe she said that?”

“Yeah. Truth? It took serious mom guts to tell you how much she really does love you all rolled up in that. Don’t worry about the cussing and getting mad. I know a couple of girls a lot like you. Didn’t seem to stop them.”

“Did they grow up okay?”

He thought about that one for a few ticks. “I think growin’ up is something we do forever.” He sipped his Coke while he waited for that to hit. “Your mom doesn’t want you to play softball?”

“Only at the park with the little league mixed team. Not with you. She says I’m too young and too much trouble and shouldn’t bother you with all my junk and the only reason is ‘cause I want to hang out with the TV people I saw you with in the paper. And that’s BS, too. ‘Cause I can play okay for a girl and your team’s all girls mostly and I’m not too much trouble. Except for mom. And summer school. Since we moved my English grades suck again and my teachers all hate me ‘cause I’m flippant. That’s what they all say. Flippant.”

“You look it up?”

“It means smart ass when you can’t say smart ass.”

“There you go. It’s like skin, kinda. Get used to it, ‘cause it stays with you, trust me. And look, people make excuses for you not being able to do stuff without really getting to it. Your mom works some Saturdays and it’s a haul in all the traffic up to Long Beach or Santa Monica from SD. Ask her about that, see if there’s something you can work out. Better grades and sitting on flippant might net you a ride.”

“You think?”

“Duh.” He grinned, clinked her glass. “You get square with your mom and summer school. You show, you can play.” He’d never thought of charity softball being used as academic performance leverage, but here it was. “You know why we play softball?”

“For some charity, mom said.”

“That’s right. It’s the ‘somebody always has time to help girls with troubles’ charity. Call your mom, tell her where you are. I’ll talk her down and you go wash your face. We’ll get right with your mom, then we can go get your guitar fixed, grab an In ‘n Out. We can even hit that English workbook in your case if you want. When we’re done I can run you back down there if your mom needs me to.”

“Like right now? Get my guitar fixed and everything? We can do all that?”

“Yep.” He dropped the lid and latched her case. “From here you look a lot like one of those girls with troubles. And I look like the somebody who needs to have some time.” He took her empty glass, left an Oreo on the table, tossed one to the dog. “Go call your mom.” He checked the stinky mess of gray dog again. “Before all her hair turns gray.”

***

Jackson slid Sky’s guitar case in and down, eased the hatch closed on the new Corolla hatchback that had replaced her mom’s gasping Pinto. Watched in silence while Sky tugged on her mom’s arm, showed her the one-hour photos. “No shit, Mom! Look! Look! Honey Muffin from Skanque! She helped fix my guitar! Mine! Can you believe it? She used to live here, ‘member?” He walked around the car, got a big hug from Sky and a one-armed upset but thank you mom-ish hug from Star.

“Thanks. Again.” Star tilted her head toward the passenger side of the car.

“You’re welcome.” He closed the car door, leaned down into the window. “You two cut each other some slack, okay? You’re all you’ve got for family, and lonesome sucks.”

“We got you, too, Mr. Jackson. And now you got us and that big, stinky dog.”

“I come out ahead on that deal, even with the dog. Sky?” He put his finger on his temple. “Hit record, print this. Call me before you ever get on a bus again.” He waited until the Corolla made the left toward the ocean in the Long Beach twilight before he turned around, looked at the tall, matted, gray-haired dumpster stank with four feet standing in front of him.

“What the hell am I supposed to do with you?” The Wolfhound put its front paws on his shoulders, licked his nose. He glanced down, did a gender check. Sky had been right about he being a she. “Just what I need in my life. One more female runaway.”

Photo Credit- Gresham Guitars

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Christmas Liszt

People are starting to panic. “Oh my God, did I get little whozit or big whozit or old whozit or the child whozit a Christmas present worthy of the sampled celestial choir going ‘AHHHHHHHH’ like baby Jesus just dropped in for brunch?” And then the tag. “You won’t tell me what you want so I’ll just go buy you some stuff.”

Please. I don’t want stuff. No more tools, I have enough to do any job around the house four different ways. I have shirts. And shoes and pants and sleep pants and no more jackets and I don’t wear ties. I might like a replacement for the bedroom Logitech remote that I want to throw against the wall as hard as I can. But I’ll do that off-holiday time. No more stuff. Nothing cute or warm or functional or useful or even fun. What I want for Christmas isn’t on Amazon or Jet or L.L Bean’s or Neiman’s (that’s a joke for all the rich people who troll this blog). Nope. Because what I want for Christmas? I want me some of that Rock Star Hair!

Really! I mean look around. Regular dudes, where does our hair go? Some guys get to keep theirs, but most of us? Adios. This year I want to replace all the fa-la-la-la-las with follicle-la-la-las. Now there are some considerations, and a gazillion choices. Take the Pekingese on Sir Elton John’s head. No way. The Keith Richards look I can get in a day after Halloween half-price sale in the Frankenstein costume bag. The same with Alice Cooper. The other day I saw an interview with Robbie Robertson of The Band fame and I swear I could have taken that Teflon thing off his head and cleaned a nasty three-day old college dorm room sloppy joes skillet with it. That may be Dylan’s hair, but still. When rigor sets in I’ll see if I can borrow him to clean my chimney. I was driving down the tollway the other day, big ol’ billboard for Styx at a casino. Look at all that hair! And the color! How does a guy get a gray goatee and oxblood shoe polish color hair? And lots of it? One of them, his hair is the exact same style and color not found in nature as this woman I know who is a “spunky” seventy. Which is about right for Styx. Because they had greatest hits records out when I was twenty and I’m, well, old enough to remember “Light Up” and what they were talking about.

Most of the country guys all get hats until the plugs grow in and to keep the weaves in line. Probably a good idea, because that unnatural hairline looks a lot like a green onion garden. I remember seeing Al Di Meola right after some plug work and he kept that hat on until he started talking about it. Springsteen was working my skin skull cap back in the Nineties, and all of a sudden after a year of hats, hair! And Opie still wears a ball cap. Check out Franz’s hair in the header picture. Some kind of unnatural symmetry in that hairline.

Some don’t even bother to make sure their hair matches the graying stuff around their ears, like Billy Ray Cyrus and that earlier deal with Robertson. I mean you’d think Hanna Montana’s dad would do her proud, right?

I am a seriously big Jeff Beck fan. The guy’s guitar playing and support of female artists and causes makes all old guys look good. But the same hair since ’65? It’s starting to look like a furry hipster’s beanie.

Others go full on black like Gene Simmons or some other solid color like Chuck Norris. But that’s one guy I will never tell how messed up his hair is. Because an episode of “Walker, Texas Ranger” changed my life. Not really. Because Chuck may be old and his hair maybe looks stupid, but he’s a badass. I won’t give Paul McCartney any grief, either, but not because I’m scared of him. My wife still remembers him fondly as the “cute” Beatle. Which goes right to Ringo. All that jet-black hair and beard. The guy is how old? And Steven Tyler? Jeez. What sort of system is that? Do the feather ear rings come with the weave or help anchor it? Does he wear it to the grocery store? With the spandex and leather? All he needs is an overcoat and he’s the cover of Aqualung.

The TV and movie guys really have it wired. Probably because they have a line on the make-up and prop people. Captain Kirk has been wearing nylon hair and man Spanx since the first Star Trek TV show so I won’t go into Affleck and Travolta and Sheen ad nauseum. And women complain about airbrushed cellulite and the photoshop squeeze and facial close-ups that would made a fresh peach feel ugly. Hey! Dudes get dissed everyday for not having underwear model abs and hair that would rival Daniel Boone’s coonskin cap.

hair-rentalHow can I be old and old rock star cool without the hair? Not that it would make me cooler or thinner or hit the Bowflex to get old guy buff more often, but I’d have it. Hair! No funny color, just what is, only more of it.

Well, that’s a lie. When I really get down to it and take a long, hard look I realize the truth that Patti Smith and Grace Slick have shown us all. When you still have a lot of your own hair and are over a certain age, regardless of gender, we all start to look like Jerry Garcia. I mean before he was dead. Or was Gratefully Dead, but not…Anyway.

I think if I can’t get Rock Star Hair for Christmas and grow old with a big ol’ stash of vanity, I’ll have to admire the cats like Billy Joel and Garth Brooks and Sting and James Taylor and the others who just give it up and shave it or live with it like it is. Be one of the ones who “Let It Be.” And you know, it’s still cool if it’s gone, I guess. Because sexist cliché persona that he is, Dapper Dancin’ Fool Dave is one smooth, horse smiling, Vaudeville grade, old school rockin’ dude. Forget the screams and high notes (they’re long gone), forget the old hair (because it’s gone) and the fur coats. Now it might be the wrong color, but with what’s left of his own hair, let DLR and some rock stars with (maybe) their own gray hair hook you up with those Christmas sugar plum fairies in your head and “Dance the Night Away.”

 

Who needs hair or your old voice when you know a good guitar player? Nose Band Aids optional. Gift cards for rock star hair are now being accepted.

If amidst all this recent mandolin driven melancholy Emo lyric Americana and children pretending to play retro psychedelia you’ve forgotten what electric guitar sounds like?

Merry Christmas. And for the New Year? Turn it up to 11 whether you can dance or Santa brings you rock star hair or not. And all you old guys, remember; even rock stars are smart enough to wear pants with a skosh more room.

 

 

 

Fanfare for an Uncommon Man

I was a twenty-year-old kid, fumbling around, knowing I no longer belonged to a life I’d thought all those twenty years was for me. Knowing my fairy tale had taken a sharp turn on a dark, rainy night, skidded off the road and gotten mired in the mud. And I sat there, spinning my wheels in 1973 from late May until November 28th. That night, at the Fairgrounds Arena in Oklahoma City, I sat on the seventh row, on the floor, just in front of Greg Lake at an ELP concert. Not long after they’d changed formats, going live with the Brain Salad Surgery album. Chapter one of the rest of my life.

I walked out of the arena and said, “That’s what I’m gonna to do.” Not that I was going to be Emerson Lake and Palmer, something I considered only briefly early on and discovered wasn’t going to happen, but it sent me down a road I’d seen the signposts for that night. I told people about it, what I was going to do. Build a pile of keyboards and rock the world. They said you have responsibilities, you can’t do that, you’re nuts. Sure I was. But I’d already punched my ticket to ride right on out of the mainstream, so why not?

The fastest way to get to be Keith Emerson, or someone like Keith Emerson, aside from piano lessons and a good left hand, was to buy a Moog synthesizer and learn how to use it. I’d already taken piano lessons, so I put my MG Midget up for collateral at the bank across the street from the deli where I was making sandwiches for my old classmates in their office tower clothes and bought the second Mini Moog to hit the state of Oklahoma. Only hours behind the first one that went to a lounge band. I laughed. Screw those guys. I was going to be a synthesist!

Like the man said. Now I are one.

emo adFor just over six years I was the North American Product and Artist Relations manager for an Italian company that built digital pianos. Innovative and unique digital pianos. They were a small company and didn’t pay anyone much for endorsements or ship tons of gear to artist’s doors. They built an instrument, that’s it. Keith Emerson was one of our first “endorsees.” He sold a lot of pianos and got a few free ones in return. And he brought a number of great keyboardists with him. All unpaid, all friendly, all brilliant and talented. Keith or his tech Will would call, “I need a piano to meet me here or there.” Fine. Keith rode motorcycles with the Italian guy who owned the company. Through the desert, the wine country. “No problem,” I’d say. “Give me an address.”

All of that leads to me sitting with Keith in a Holiday Inn restaurant one evening, drinking way over-priced Kendall Jackson grocery store quality wine and, surprisingly, being roundly ignored by passers-by. I’ d often thought of telling him before, but that evening after enough of that expensive cheap wine, I informed him that the lost years of my mid-twenties were his fault. I told him about Oklahoma City, about how my screeching MiniMoog made my neighbors on 32nd and Barnes think I was sacrificing cats. Or worse, practicing some form of Godless Voodoo after I’d figured out his steel drum sound. More importantly, that I’d wanted to be him when I grew up. He laughed, said don’t blame me, and if trying to be him ever netted me any female companionship I owed him. For getting me out in front with the guitar players who, up until Emerson, invariably got all the girls. I told him that if I had to pay him what I owed him for that business I’d be way more than broke. He laughed again, we drank more wine, told more stories. I didn’t tell him that as disrepectful kids we often joked that ELP was what happened when Paul Revere and the Raiders discovered crack. If anyone still thinks that, it’s an urban myth and nothing more.

Keith was an uncommon man whose stiff-necked, iron-spined, no-holds-barred and totally uncompromising approach to rock ‘n roll changed the way the world looked at keyboard players over the last forty years of the Twentieth Century. He had ganglion cyst surgery, piano lids crashed down on his hands, roman candles hooked to a ribbon controller blew his thumbnails off, but the show we were always welcomed to always went on. Emo was the Jimi Hendrix style showman of keyboards and, as I said, he helped an entire generation of dorky piano lesson boys get off the bench and put them in front of serious guitarist’s electricity. The Moog went from Switched on Bach and the hallowed halls of academia to switched full-on rock. We were a legion, the Emerson-ites. A legion of white pirate shirts and vests, all of us turned up to eleven. Our old piano teachers covering their ears, spinning in their graves. It wasn’t about the chops as much as it was about balls. It was about relentlessly pushing the envelope. Turning three guys into five. It was putting ten pounds of music in a five-pound bag and keeping it from exploding. If you blew it up some nights getting there, that was okay.

The show that never ended, that we were all welcome to attend, has now come to a close. Suddenly and violently, just as the finale of Karn Evil 9.

I’ll miss you, Keith. And I’ll say “Thanks” as well. For making me miserable when I was young, making me laugh as I grew older, for being the tow-rope that got me out of the mud and back on the road when I was aimless and sightless. For being the inspiration that forced me to be better than I was. For setting a standard. For setting me on the path that ultimately led me to the rest of my life and for mercilessly demanding better than mediocrity. For making mediocrity, often my own, so easy to spot.

I blew up a studio monitor the other day listening to “Knife Edge” after I found out Keith was gone. It felt great and sounded magnificent even after I lit it up. You might consider trying it, if you have a fire extinguisher handy.

 

 

Good Enough for Rock n Roll is Good Enough for Harvard

Thirty-four years later Harvard picks up the mantle of Southern Rock!

Bands were, and continue to be, a classic example of collaborative burnout. I’m not sure if this is an example of cross-cultural contamination, wonderful insight or simple irony. Or if someone in graphic design went through their parent’s vinyl collection and went “Aha!” Regardless, I got a history flashback standing in line at Whole Foods. Who says plagiarism at the college level is a myth?

Turn it up, Harvard! And straighten your tie…

Way More Than MIDI

For some reason, MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) seems to be getting more attention on its thirty-second birthday than it did on its thirtieth. I’ve read more misinformation than I thought possible until I realized I was reading things on the Internet. Did you know, according to RedShark, the Yamaha DX-7 was the first synthesizer to support MIDI? Strange. For those of us lucky enough to be standing in the Sequential booth at the Anaheim convention center to see it work for the very first time we saw a Sequential Prophet 600 and a Roland JP-6 play each other, and miscommunicate program changes by one number. That’s not what this is about, though. This is about celebrating more than MIDI. It’s about celebrating a little company on North First St. in San Jose, California that could see into the future.

On MIDI’s thirtieth birthday I sent Dave Smith a note telling him I’d just purchased a MIDI interface for my iPhone, and how cool was that? That same 5-pin DIN plug hadn’t changed. Of course, the 30-pin on my iPhone was doomed, but not MIDI. Dave reminded me that MIDI was still at rev 1 after all that time, and that hardware was more fun than software, cheers. And that is one of the legacies of Sequential. The resiliency of good design. When something works and people can use it; when it’s simple and elegant and deep enough to hang for a long time, particularly in the world of technology, it’s a good idea. Look at Dave Smith’s instruments now. They are sleeker and faster than the originals of 1977, and incredibly similar. Dave has always designed and built performance instruments, and thirty-two years ago MIDI was designed primarily so that physical musical instruments could discuss making music together. Yet MIDI is the defacto standard for hardware and human interfaces to discuss the making of music with pretty pictures of instruments captured under the glass of a computing device’s monitor. It doesn’t matter if it’s a USB cable or that thirty-two-year-old 5-pin DIN, the language spoken is MIDI.

In 1982 when I’d walk by and see Dave in that corner office with reams of green-bar paper and teletype pages covered in hex I had no idea. I don’t suspect that he did, either. Or he might not have given it away. That’s right, the MIDI protocol is free. A very Northern California concept. Hippie engineers making the world a better place for synthesizer players, free. Imagine. MIDI was conceived to foster a sense of modern musical community. That’s some pretty serious save-the-future tree hugger engineering for you right there.

Now for the other really important “seeing into the future” thing that rarely gets mentioned. Barb Fairhurst. What? A female vice president and business manager in 1977? In a couple of male dominated businesses? Not just technology and engineering, but the music business as well. Back in the old cigar smoke, big talk and “what can I do for you, little lady” times. Back when women were usually the vice presidents of the laundry room and the grocery store run, at Sequential we had a lady boss. Who gave this long haired kid from Oklahoma a shot at seeing the future, a coffee cup with my name on it, and made us sign things in a specific color of ink as a “standard.” Barb dealt with the business end of things, the banks, the vendors, the dealers. Us. She even handled the great “we’re not galley slaves” revolt in manufacturing when it was decided they should use anti-static wristbands that were attached to their workbenches. Walk from the “carpet” to the “tile” at Sequential back then and you got an earful from someone about indentured servitude until Barb calmed the waters.

Sequential was the heart of a romantic music-meets-technology ideal in a pragmatic world, and, as a result, is no longer with us in that little building on North First Street, but it is still with those who make modern music every day. I would like to suggest that instead of just wishing MIDI a happy thirty-second birthday we also celebrate the programmable polyphonic performance synthesizer, vector synthesis, multi-timbral workstations, the insight and wisdom of female executives and the spirit of a global musical community that rides for free on the three hot wires of that 5-pin DIN plug. That’s the real reason to be nostalgic and celebrate Dave, Barb and Sequential. To celebrate the little company so small and long ago that showed us the future.