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Jack Bog's Blog, by Jack Bogdanski of Portland, Oregon

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December 2002 Archives

Sunday, December 29, 2002

Yin and yang

Over the last two years, the negative, cynical side of me that others find so attractive and charming has launched my lists of the Top 10 Nitwits of the Year. This year, now that I've got the weblog, things will be a little different.

Don't worry, the 2002 nitwit list will appear very shortly; indeed, the competition is especially keen this year, and the judges are working on it as I write. But first, let's get on the positive tip with my --

Top 10 Favorite Public Figures of the Year 2002

10 (group).

The Funk Brothers, legendary Motown backup band, celebrated in a new movie.

9 (group).

Voice of the Faithful, Catholic reform group.


Howard Tate, legendary soul singer, rediscovered and ever-gracious.


Tony Pierce, blogger extraordinaire, currently posting from hell.


Randy Leonard, new Portland city commissioner.


Warren Zevon, facing the greatest challenge with courage, humor and concern for others.


David Letterman, for brilliant shows such as his night dedicated to Zevon (10/30) and the 9/11 anniversary. Spending Christmas in Afghanistan with U.S. troops was another thoughtful touch.

2 (tie).

Serena and Venus Williams, athletes and role models.


Bruce Springsteen, whose album The Rising expressed the complex emotions of the preceding year perfectly.

UPDATE: Identifications added 9:05 pm 12/30.

Saturday, December 28, 2002

Bottom of the barrel

The Portland Tribune has been a great addition to the civic life of Portland, but this weekend's edition is really trashy. In a crass move to increase circulation, the editors have decided to give us three and half more pages of yet another profile of the suspected murderer of the two Oregon City teenage girls whose bodies were found in his backyard earlier this year.

This "inside the mind of a killer" line gave the Trib the excuse to rehash the story for the umpteenth time, replete with the stock photos of the girls and the ever-present timeline.

But the worst feature of all -- showing the absolute depths to which an editorial board can sink -- is the 7-by-9-inch color photo of the suspect that runs over the fold on the front page. Now that's obscenity.

The error here goes beyond bad taste. What kind of message does it send when we constantly glorify creeps like this? Here in Oregon we are currently reeling over the murder of a mother and her children over Christmas, on the anniversary of a similar murder last year. Once again, the husband and father is the suspect. The media here will doubtlessly spend months wringing their hands and gravely asking what makes people act this way. What would make someone think it's cool, or sexy, or glamorous, to commit murder?

Well, folks, just look at the front page of this weekend's Trib.

Trib editors, do us all a favor. Save the pictures of Ward Weaver until the day they execute him. And then, a nice little 2-by-4 black and white shot, inside with the jump, will be plenty.

Friday, December 27, 2002

Counting to ten -- or is it a thousand?

When Jack Nicholson got out of his car and smashed another driver's windshield with a golf club, it wasn't some movie. It was his real life. Old Jack eventually apologized and made amends after a brief court action.

There are too many days when I know exactly where he was coming from.

Take today's little ski outing. The wife and I drive 90 minutes up to the Mount Hood National Forest, with our shiny new cross-country ski packages in the back. We find our trailhead, get the car all parked, the backpacks all packed, and we're ready to go. So now it's time to step into those beautiful new skis and get shooshing in the winter wonderland.


The folks at the REI Jantzen Beach store have sent us off with a wrong pair of skis, and my wife's new boots won't fit into the bindings.

Ski outing over.

Now there are some people out there who can actually laugh off an incident like this, and do so right away. Some would have the presence of mind to stop and at least enjoy the change of scenery before revving up the car and heading back to the city. There are actually even some folks who could carry on a civil conversation on the way home from such an experience, and then be polite and rational when dealing with the customer service people at the store that made the mistake.

Try as I might, I am not one of those people.

I've been a "member" of REI for more than 20 years, and I can never remember it being as chaotic and unhelpful as it is today. There are lots of people with name tags walking around, but none of them seem to know much. It's amazing to me that an outfit that sells gear on which people rely for their lives on mountain tops and in the wilderness can be so disorganized. I remember when being a "member" of this nice, tight, well run regional co-op felt special. Now it's just gotten way too big. It feels almost like a G.I. Joe's store, only with fancy lighting and a weird, unfathomable agenda. Everything you want seems to be back-ordered, and you wonder why you don't just get on line and order it from home.

The manager guy gave me a $20 gift card for my trouble, but I can't see myself going to REI again for anything for a long time, even if they are giving it away.

They say they're closing that particular store soon and moving it to the toney Pearl District. That seems about right. REI has become as woodsy, populist, and authentically Pacific Northwest as the Pearl.

Clonaid Said to Claim Creation of First Human Clone-- News story

Pat Benatar
In the Heat of the Night
Chrysalis Records, 1979

My Clone Sleeps Alone

You know and I know
My clone sleeps alone
She's out on her own -- forever
She's programmed to work hard
She's never profane
She won't go insane -- not ever

No V.D., no cancer, on TV's the answer
No father, no mother, she's just like the other
And you know and I know
My clone sleeps alone

Your clone loves my clone
But yours cannot see
That's no way to be, in heaven
No sorrow, no heartache
Just clone harmony
So obviously, it's heaven

No naughty clone ladies allowed in the eighties
No bed names, no sex games, just clone names and clone games
And you know and I know
My clone sleeps alone

Before we existed
The cloning began
The cloning of man and woman
When we're gone they'll live on
Cloned endlessly
It's mandatory in heaven

But they won't remember or ever be tender
No loving, no caring, no program for pairing
No V.D., no cancer, on T.V's the answer
No father, no mother, she's just like the other

No naughty clone ladies allowed in the eighties
And you know and I know
My clone sleeps alone
My clone sleeps alone!
My clone sleeps alone!

Tuesday, December 24, 2002

Visions of sugarplums

Monday, December 23, 2002

Other voices, same room

Bloggers linking each other is so incestuous, but I'm enjoying creating my "Other Bloggers" page nonetheless. I've now inaugurated a "Portland and Oregon" section, as the last few weeks have seen not one but two new blogs devoted to those subjects. First we have Beaverblog, founded by a young fellow named Ben Cannon. Ben is a once and future Oregonian, but at the moment he's a graduate student at Oxford University in England. In our wired world, anything is possible. Ben reflected today on the piece in the other day's New York Times about traffic "calming" devices, and how Portland is one of the most "becalmed" cities on earth. I like the calming, but I hate it when Portland gets cited for something in the Times. The current regime in City Hall lives and dies for Times mentions, even when it means bankrupting the city to the point where we have crummy schools, no police stations at nights and on weekends, and no meaningful mental health system. If she thought it would get a favorable mention in the Times, Mayor Katz would burn barrels of cash in front of the Pittock Mansion. Livability is in the eye of the beholder.

Today I also noticed a new blog by someone who calls himself The One True b!X, and it is called Portland Communique. From it we learn that the silly plan to put a skating rink in Pioneer Courthouse Square for three or four months every winter seems to have a life of its own, even though it will be ugly and out of character. To which I might add, as I have here before, way too expensive, and as others have pointed out, competition for the other big local skating rink, at Lloyd Center Mall. People forget that in the '80s the owners of Lloyd Center were looking for an excuse to close that rink, despite the love of it by the local citizenry. The Pioneer Courthouse Square rink could begin the demise of the Lloyd Center rink, at which the crocodile tears will flow from the City Hall planners who seem hellbent on defiling "Portland's living room."

Anyway, Ben and b!X, glad to link ya.

And so it is

Sunday, December 22, 2002

Music to my ears

Guess who's opening doors and allowing fresh air to blow through the City Council Chambers here? None other than freshman Commissioner Randy Leonard. Get this: He actually questioned the use of additional tax subsidies to continue the erection of the concrete jungle (actually, more like a particle board jungle) known as the Pearl District. The nerve of him!

Even the stodgy old Oregonian editorial board is applauding. Here is what they had to say yesterday:

Well, Randy Leonard didn't waste any time. He's already shaking things up at City Hall, and that's just what the Portland City Council -- and the entire city -- needs these days.

This week the newly elected commissioner raised questions about property tax breaks to develop middle- and upper-income apartments in Northwest Portland. Specifically, he wanted to know why subsidies are needed for digs where monthly rents are close to $1,800. He wondered if the Pearl District needs tax breaks to spur investment any more, especially when other economically troubled areas are going undeveloped. Good questions.

Don't worry, the developers got their 10-year tax breaks. Leonard himself ultimately went along with other members of the council because he came late to this debate. (He promised more scrutiny for future projects.) But you might have thought he had committed a crime against nature.

As The Oregonian's Scott Learn reported, "Developers of the proposed Pearl Block Apartments counter that Leonard and other critics are second-guessing long successful policies." Learn also quoted Pat Prendergast, managing member of Pearl LLC, the property owner, who said, "People are taking issue with material they don't have background on. It sends a message that the city is not open for business -- as usual."

We're as worried as anyone about this city's business climate, and it's reasonable for developers to want predictability in government policies. You plan a big project based on the expectation of a property-tax break, you ought to receive the tax break. But what Leonard is doing is hardly a sign that the city is still not open for business. He's asking questions -- good ones -- and challenging assumptions. If that's second-guessing, then second-guessing is what this city needs, especially as it tries to encourage a strong business environment.

If the policy is so successful, we're sure it will stand up to scrutiny. It's not anti-business to question subsidies for high-rent apartments. It's pro-taxpayer.

In addition to my annual list of Top 10 Nitwits, this year I may just have to draw up a list of People of the Year, just so Randy can get on it.

Saturday, December 21, 2002

The dark days

Here we are in the darkest time of year. In the Pacific Northwest, with cloud cover nearly every day, it's really dark. This is when we pay for summer -- those days in June when it stays light out well into the night, the sky not quite black even at 10 p.m. Now we know our day is ending by around 4. It ain't Alaska, but there are days when we get a slight hint of how folks up there must feel. Not only can't you tell whether it's summer or winter; sometimes it's hard to say whether it's day or night.

I wonder why winter solstice isn't more of a bummer to me. I know I'm sensitive to the daylight issue, and Christmas, which probably obscures it for some people, has never stopped me from noticing the wicked shortness of the days. But it doesn't bring me down. Perhaps it is my night owl ways, which give me a good deal of dark waking hours even in the summer.

But this time of year, I always get a sense of hope. I can't help remembering that over the next week, the days will start getting longer again. The song "Sunny" by Bobby Hebb starts playing in my head. Very uncharacteristic for the cynic that I usually find myself being. I might even put the George Winston "December" album on to round out the inner glow. Touchy feely!

Weather-wise, of course, we're nowhere near bottom. The days will get longer now, but they will also get colder and wetter for what will seem like a long time before they finally break into spring in a few months. Around these parts, Feb. 1 is probably the nadir. But at least Mother Nature doesn't give us the worst of the dark, and the worst of the cold and wet, all at once.

Friday, December 20, 2002

That ain't hay

My cost-conscious take on the Mount Tabor reservoir controversy, posted here the other day, turned out to be timely. The city has just announced that water bills in Portland are about to go up by between 8 and 12 percent. And this doesn't reflect the projected costs of fixing the reservoir security problems; it's merely to fix the mess that was made in the Water Bureau's hideously ill-fated computer system fiasco.

Lost in 'space

Not that many people other than I would care, but the archives of this blog seem to have disappeared for the moment. My first reaction was that there was something that I needed to do on Blogger to get them back up, but my limited bag of tricks has been ineffective. I also noticed that even the mighty Volokhs' archives are missing, as are those of my two blogchildren, Matt and James. So it must be a systemic thing. Perhaps the elves who run the Blogger servers have gotten into the egg nog again.

Anyway, if you were looking for an old post of mine and can't find it, please look around at the current stuff and see what you think. Then come back in a day or so, when I hope and pray the 5-plus months of ranting and musing will once again be available. Yes, "Joey Harrington nude"!

Speaking of blogchildren, now TJ has joined the blogosphere, inspired by her dad, James. I believe that makes me a bloggrandpa. Have a cigar! And Eugene Volokh becomes a bloggreatgrandfather! (Warning: If you follow the link to TJ, you may be subject to a generation-skipping-linkage fee.)

Along with the archive outage is an apparently unrelated outage of my Bravenet hit counter. So tonight I blog purely, without the crutch of instant gratification and without linkage to the past. To paraphrase the old rock group the Grass Roots, let's blog for today.

UPDATE, 12:30 p.m.: Things are back in the pink in archiveland today. The Bravenet counter is still down, though, leaving me with an itchy ego!

6:00 p.m.: Everything's back up, ob-la-di, ob-la-da. Interludes like this are helpful in that they show one why one does something like blogging.

Wednesday, December 18, 2002

How thoughtful

I just got back from a rare shopping (and mailing) trip to downtown Portland, and I am so excited. I parked on the street and used one of those fancy new parking machines, and wouldn't you know it? When I came out there was a notice under my windshield wiper that I had won a prize! Yep, because I did something called "over space line," I won $16! It must be some kind of holiday giveaway.

This is a pleasant surprise. I must say, when I first arrived, I found it a little inconvenient having to go a half block from my car to the little parking robot and back to my car, and having to open up my car again and put the little receipt thingie on my dashboard. But boy, coming out a few minutes later and finding that I had won a prize for "over space line" made it all worthwhile!

Actually, I'm not sure how I managed to win the "over space line" contest. I parked in a large space between two other parked cars, and I made sure to leave lots of room between me and the one in front of me, and between me and the one behind me. In the old days, when there was a parking meter at every space, it was pretty easy to tell from inside your car where one space ended and the other began. Now that's not possible unless you get in and out of your car (a total of three times) to check how you're doing with those little lines painted on the ground. Actually, I may have been over one little line by a foot or so. But hey, I guess everybody's a winner parking in downtown Portland.

The little notice of my prize didn't tell me where to go to claim it. The notice is in the form of an envelope, but there's nothing inside. Oh well, I'm sure I'll figure it out eventually.

You know what? I'm going to have to reconsider my recent practice of not shopping downtown. Sure, parking at the mall is plentiful and free, and you don't get panhandled there, but man oh man! You sure don't win any $16 prizes at the mall, either!

Just call me lucky-lucky-lucky! Thank you, City of Portland, for this marvellous Christmas present! I'll be back soon!

Tanks a lot

Some neighbors of Mount Tabor Park in southeast Portland are up in arms about the city's plans to replace the reservoirs there with underground water tanks. The city is rightly concerned about terrorism and other threats to the water supply presented by the open reservoirs, but the nearby residents are concerned about the alteration of the distinctive landscape of the park, which sits on an extinct volcano in the middle of a busy neighborhood. (A similar plan is in place for the reservoir in Washington Park on the west side of town, but that one apparently is less controversial.)

Much of the outcry on Mount Tabor is focused on aesthetics, and justifiably so. The park and reservoir system have been cut back quite noticeably over the last 20 years, with a large reservoir at 60th and Division cleared out for housing. Ripping out the rest of the reservoirs and their quaint trappings from nearly a century ago would eliminate a classic Portland scene.

But as a customer of the Water Bureau, I also worry about cost. These days Portland is redoing a large portion of its sewer system to try to stop the hideous runoff of raw human sewage into the Willamette River during heavy rains. This work, which will continue indefinitely, already results in an epidemic of sticker shock when residents receive their quarterly water and sewer bills (that is, if they receive them, but that's a different story). Before shelling out high eight figures for tanks on Tabor -- the current price tag for the project is $65 million, but it would surely cost more -- the city ought to determine that no cheaper alternative is feasible.

Wouldn't a small security force and some electronic surveillance be cheaper? At a 5% interest rate, $65 million represents an infinite stream of $3,250,000 a year. Couldn't a decent security setup be installed on Tabor for a lot less than that? Plus, think of the side benefits -- a regular police presence in a Portland park. What a novel concept!

Proponents of the tank plan doubtlessly will respond that a security crew with cameras would be too porous to stop determined attackers. But if they really want to destroy Portland's water supply, terrorists can probably do it even if the water is stored below ground. Let's face it, God forbid, a nuclear weapon would doubtlessly rupture the tanks. And since the 9/11 massacre appears to be what moved this project to the front burner, one must admit that the tanks probably would not survive the impact of a speeding 747, either.

My take is that the security goals could be accomplished much more cheaply, if the city really wanted to pursue less expensive options.

But that is a big "if." One of the neighbors' complaints is about the process by which the decisions are being made. First off, the studies are being performed by a consultant with a major conflict of interest. As a recent Portland Tribune article explains:

Charles Heying, an associate professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University, wonders if it is a conflict of interest for the planning discussions to be led by a consulting firm that stands to benefit from a multimillion-dollar contract to design and build the underground reservoir tanks.

"The problem is that the people running the public process have something to gain," Heying said. "And we aren't even allowed to talk about options that involve saving the reservoirs. You need a neutral facilitator to have an open process. Anything else is just an information campaign."

Water bureau spokeswoman Walker points out that [consultant] Montgomery Watson Harza hasn't won the contract for designing and building the structures. That decision won't come until next spring, and three other companies also are bidding for the job.

Montgomery Watson Harza has built similar structures in Seattle and Utah and at Powell Butte Park in East Portland.

There has apparently never been a public hearing on whether the reservoirs should be replaced. That decision, neighbors are told, is a done deal, and it was done without their input. They are now being asked to comment only on what should be put on top of the underground tanks. Some have suggested a pond to keep the water feature in place. But that is no consolation for the fact that the "City That Works" is moving ahead with another major change to the urban landscape without meaningful public involvement on the most important aspects of the decision.

Commissioner Randy Leonard vowed right after his recent election to stop shenanigans like this. He's got a lot of work to do. Hey, Randy, there's no law against your holding your own public meeting, is there?

Chief gorglist

When I was a college DJ, and even as a high school kid who couldn't wait to become one, the radio personality I worshipped most was Jonathan Schwartz over on WNEW-FM in New York. This was when album rock was in its heyday on the FM dial, and DJs on that station enjoyed considerable freedom. Schwartz could get away with mixing Chopin preludes in with Crosby, Stills & Nash and Arthur Lee's Love. If he decided that Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)" was a good foil for the latest psychedelia from the Jefferson Airplane, he'd play them back to back without any acknowledgment of their apparent incongruity. Then he'd throw a James Brown cut into the mix, and open a mike so that listeners could hear people dancing in the studio with him. It was a heady time indeed.

With all that leeway, what did the renowned Mr. Schwartz choose for the first cut on his first radio show on that station? If I am recalling correctly, it was a moody, languid number by the Lovin' Spoonful called "Coconut Grove":

It's really true how nothin' matters
No mad, mad world and no mad hatters
No one's pitchin' 'cause there ain't no batters
In Coconut Grove
The voice was clearly that of John Sebastian, the songwriting genius who knocked out a string of hits in front of the Spoonful over just a couple of years in the mid-to-late '60s. But this cut was unusual in that the writing credits were shared by the group's guitarist, Zal Yanovsky. His rich guitar work, which haunted "Coconut Grove," was an integral part of the Spoonful's eclectic, ever-changing sound. When "Do You Believe in Magic?" became a national anthem for rock 'n' roll fans, it was Zal's lead guitar that provided the perfect complement to Sebastian's daring (or at least offbeat) injection of the autoharp. So full was the sound the two of them created that legend has it even Phil Spector wanted to record them. The credits on the Spoonful's Rhino anthology list Zal as playing "electric gorgle" and Chinese gong as well as providing lead guitars, vocals, and lead six-string bass.

The Spoonful hit list between "Magic" in August of '65 and "Younger Generation" in December of '67 is mighty impressive. Perhaps the highlight was "Summer in the City," which provided the perfect soundtrack for exactly that in '66, and every summer since. We teenagers took the group's prolific output for granted to a large extent, but we surely relished it. I remember buying a used dictionary at the high school bookstore, and one of the music fans a year or two ahead of me in school had memorialized his admiration by writing "Zal" and "Spoonful" on the bottom edges of the book's pages.

Zal comes to mind this week because he died last Friday just short of his 58th birthday. The New York Times obituary can be found here (at least for a while), but a more thoughtful profile of Zal's life appeared in the Toronto Sun. (Yanovsky lived just outside Kingston, Ontario, where he retired after leaving the music business.)

The Zal story intersects with that of the Mamas & the Papas, as he was for a time a member of a predecessor to that group, the Mugwumps. The history is documented in the Mamas & Papas' classic song "Creeque Alley." Of course, in one of those eerie coincidences, it was just last Friday, the day Zal died, that I found a cassette copy of the Mamas & the Papas' Greatest Hits collecting dust under the driver's seat of my car. And so yesterday, just hours before I discovered the obituary in the Times, the Mamas refreshed me on the story:

John and Mitchie were gettin' kind of itchy
Just to leave the folk music behind
Zal and Denny workin' for a penny
Tryin' to get a fish on the line
In a coffee house Sebastian sat
And after every number they passed the hat
McGuinn and McGuire just a-gettin' higher
In L.A. you know where that's at
And no one's getting fat except Mama Cass

Zallie said "Denny, you know there aren't many
Who can sing a song the way that you do, let's go south"
Denny said "Zallie, golly, don't you think that I wish
I could play guitar like you"
Zal, Denny and Sebastian sat (at the Night Owl)
And after every number they passed the hat
McGuinn and McGuire just are gettin' higher
In L.A. you know where that's at
And no one's getting fat except Mama Cass

Cass was a sophomore, planned to go to Swarthmore,
But she changed her mind one day
Standing on the turnpike, thumb out to hitchhike,
"Take me to New York right away."
When Denny met Cass he gave her love bumps
Called John and Zal, and that was the Mugwumps
McGuinn and McGuire couldn't get no higher
But that's what they were aiming at
And no one's getting fat except Mama Cass

Mugwumps, high jumps, low slumps, big bumps,
Don't you work as hard as you play
Make up, break up, everything is shake-up
Guess it had to be that way
Sebastian and Zal formed the Spoonful
Michelle, John and Denny gettin' very tuneful
McGuinn and McGuire just a-catchin' fire
in L.A. you know where that's at
And everybody's gettin' fat except Mama Cass

The end of Zal's run with the Spoonful apparently was precipitated by a marijuana bust. As a Canadian citizen, he was subject to deportation, and reports have it that as a defensive move, he turned in a dealer, which led to tensions with other musicians. But following his return to Ontario, he was a successful restaurateur and a pivotal force in reviving downtown Kingston. He apparently didn't play music much in public any more, but he did show up with the rest of the band for their induction into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame in 2000, and you can see him in a nice little photo on stage with Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, and Robbie Robertson, the other inductees from that year.

Zal is said to have been the Spoonful's sense of humor. Here's hoping that he's cracking them up and enjoying the peace where "it's always warm like in the mornin'."

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

Well, here's another clue for you all

The Walrus is Tony.

Monday, December 16, 2002

Lord help us

The next two years are going to be memorable, to say the least. Not only will we have Part 2 of our little adventure in Iraq to deal with, but we are also about to experience a major throw-down over the federal tax system. And with the GOP in charge of both the Hill and the White House, things are looking bleak indeed for the little guy (and gal).

The Washington Post is reporting today that the "new" Bush economic team is planning to shift even more of the burden of federal taxes onto low-income taxpayers. According to the story, "[t]he Treasury Department is working up more sophisticated distribution tables that are expected to make the poor appear to be paying less in taxes and the rich to be paying more."

The linchpin to the new Republican initiative: the argument that Social Security levies aren't taxes, they're insurance premiums. So when you count how heavily you're taxed, you shouldn't count FICA withholding from your paycheck, or the self-employment tax.

One would think the political fallout from this would be unacceptable to the administration, but it apparently believes that the general public is too slow to catch on or too weak to defend itself.

I hope that the Bushies are wrong, and that two years from now the proponents of this nonsense pay dearly at the polls. What's really needed are some Democratic candidates who can make the case against them in a convincing and charismatic way. But who's that? Kerry? Ted? Hillary? Al Sharpton?

Here in Oregon, a parallel movement is underfoot, with the so-called "business leaders" revving up yet another pitch for a sales tax.

Little guys (and gals), hold onto your wallets.

Sunday, December 15, 2002

Point of clarification

We are not in any way affiliated with the Bojack Academy of Beauty Culture in Boston, Massachusetts.

Saturday, December 14, 2002

Lott's apologies are not enough

We also deserve one from whoever sold him that hairpiece.

Hitting the fan

Cardinal Law may have resigned from his leadership position in the Catholic Church, but his troubles probably won't be over for a long time. The criminal justice system in Massachusetts is very interested in him and in several of the bishops who served directly beneath him.

Although it didn't make as many front-page headlines as Law's ouster, the church's New Hampshire diocese admitted in writing earlier this week that it may have violated criminal law by failing to protect children from sexually abusive priests. In an agreement with prosecutors, Bishop John McCormack acknowledged that the state has ''evidence likely to sustain a conviction of a charge ... against the diocese.'' The Boston Globe story on the agreement, and the stunning admission, can be found here.

Down in Massachusetts, the state attorney general charged the other day that the church in Boston had developed an "elaborate scheme" to conceal sex crimes by priests from law enforcement officers. The attorney general, Thomas Reilly, confirmed that the problems in the church were not the ancient history that church leaders would like the public to believe, but rather were still present. As a New York Times article reported on Friday:

"We felt an obligation to go forward, particularly given our experience dealing with this institution," Mr. Reilly said. "We've had experience dealing with other institutions against which allegations, serious allegations, had been made.

"Our experience in the past is generally they do the right thing when it comes to children. And by doing the right thing I mean they clean house. And they cooperate and they try to work with us to get to the bottom of this and find out the truth. Obviously that has not happened here."

This is not some money-grubbing plaintiffs' attorney, folks. It is the highest law enforcement official in the state and a Catholic himself to boot.

Even those of the faithful who might be willing to forgive sex between priests and teenage boys may feel very differently about alleged obstruction of a criminal investigation on top of it.

And the beat goes on: Yet another wave of blockbuster revelations will come if a diocese goes through with the threat of filing for bankruptcy. Public scrutiny of church finances would be unprecedented, and it is hard to imagine that when those rocks are turned over, some interesting critters will not be found underneath.

Friday, December 13, 2002

In with the ornaments

As my wife shifts the Christmas decoration of our home into high gear, and as we both continue to sneeze and sniffle occasionally with a bug that's been hanging around the house for more than a month now, I'm reminded of a key holiday decoration out of my past. My father's mother, a saint of a New York City Irish gal named Alice, had in her box of decorations a box of Kleenex tissues. Not just good old regular Kleenex, mind you, but a special box that had red and green tissues in it and a Christmas motif on the sides.

The tissues were packed so that they alternated as you drew them out -- first a green one, then a red one. Naturally little hands like ours wanted to effect this fascinating transformation over and over, but that wasn't allowed. In fact, one wasn't allowed to use the special Kleenex for any purpose other than as a decoration. This rule explained the longevity of that single box, which got dusted off and strategically placed on the same end table year after year.

As Granny would remind us, "Honey, these are for show, not for blow."

Thursday, December 12, 2002

More on the Burnside plan

After my post of yesterday on the City Council's plan to narrow Burnside Street and turn it into a one-way thoroughfare, I saw a clip on the news from the council meeting at which the plan was approved. My neighbor, Commissioner Jim Francesconi, was telling the audience, "This will stimulate development and expand our property tax base, and we need to do that, folks," or something along those lines.

Today I couldn't resist doing a little math, and as a result I am even more dubious of the plan. The media is reporting that the project would cost between $40 million and $50 million, and it might be a few years before it gets started. Given inflation and the tendency of these projects to run over budget, let's use $50 million as the projected cost. How much property tax would it take to equal a present value of $50 million? At a 5% discount rate, it would take $2.5 million a year in new taxes.

How much new property tax base would it take to generate $2.5 million a year in taxes to the city? According to my rough calculations, of the 2.12% of assessed value that's paid in property taxes in Portland, the city gets less than 1%. But using 1% just for the sake of argument, there would have to be the equivalent of $250 million in new assessed values for the city to break even. If it takes five years after the city spends its money for the development to occur, due to the time value of money, the needed increase in assessed values to break even would be in the neighborhood of $319 million.

Commissioner Francesconi, do you really think that making Burnside a one-way street is going to add $319 million in assessed values to the tax rolls?

It doesn't add up.

UPDATE: Just a day after all this discussion of the future of inner Burnside Street, a frightening battle took place, in the heart of the area, between police and a suspected parole violator. Is somebody up there trying to tell us something?

Perhaps some will say this incident highlights the need to clean up Burnside and get rid of the transients who make so much trouble there. But gentrifying that stretch will only move them and their problems elsewhere in the neighborhood. Meanwhile, we spend money that's desperately needed to treat the mentally ill on frivolities like development incentives and traffic management.

Wednesday, December 11, 2002

Another done deal

The Portland City Council has voted to make Burnside Street -- the busy thoroughfare that serves as the "equator" of Portland -- into a one-way street, going eastbound only, for about 30 blocks on both sides of the river in the heart of town. Westbound traffic would get re-routed onto Couch Street (which in Portland is pronounced "cooch"). Supposedly this will make Burnside more pedestrian-friendly and spur development along Couch.


There are all sorts of questions raised by this latest brainstorm by the geniuses at our City Hall. For example, how would turning Burnside into a four-lane-wide one-way street slow traffic down? If anything, aren't drivers going to be encouraged to speed up? Plus, Burnside is already clogged much of the day. How is the much narrower Couch Street going to handle all that new traffic?

Apparently we're going to narrow Burnside and widen the sidewalks. That's right, narrow the busiest street in the city. And maybe we'll give some of the old sidewalk space back to the landowners on either side of Burnside. Oh yes, we haven't spent enough public money making developers rich indirectly, by running taxpayer trams to their little enclaves. Heck, let's just give away some real estate outright. Blue collar folks in their cars be damned, it's real estate owners that we need to make happier.

And even if it makes sense, how can we afford this? Here's my daily litany again: schools falling apart, police stations closed at night and on weekends, no working mental health system, homeless teeming onto inner east side neighborhoods. And yet we have the millions for this, so that we can "support development"?

Ah, the almighty "development." I guess the usual real estate suspects must have some property along Couch that they need to cash in on.

But the biggest question of them all is: How does our city government make such important decisions without any meaningful attention from the local media until the very eve of the meeting at which the vote is going to be taken? I'm a pretty thorough reader of the local fishwrap, and I watch the local news most nights, but I never heard a word about this doozy of an idea until last night. The vote was taken today, and I'm sure the decision in fact was made weeks ago.

It's all part of the fun in the "City That Works." Works for whom is what you've gotta wonder.


We never thought of ourselves as "underprivileged" children, as they used to be called in those days. But by my current standard of living, we didn't have much. And so when our dads' veterans post used to hold a Christmas party for us little boomers, there were always gifts donated by local businesses.

The party was held every year about this time in the hall in the back of the post building. At the time, that room seemed absolutely huge, but a more recent visit showed it to be not very big at all. We kids would run around and scream in the back while some sort of entertainment went on up front by the Christmas tree, next to the flag and the picture of the local boy who was killed in the war. Christmas carols by Bing Crosby would be piped in through the same little p.a. system that they used to use for Bingo games one night a week.

After an hour of two of loosely structured merriment, the big moment would arrive and Santa would come through the door. Every year it was the same guy -- the bachelor neighbor whose red nose was authentic from too much booze, too much time on his hands, too much who-knows-what-else. But on this day, for an hour or so, he got to share a tiny bit of the life his war buddies were living in their little flats with their wives and kids. He always had a red stocking for each of us, with candy, nuts and oranges, and maybe a toy or two that the Marx Toy Company would donate via one of the dads who (like mine) delivered freight for them.

One year there was an unusual item amidst the Christmas stash: a record album donated by a company based over in New York. It was called "A Christmas Gift for You," and it featured a number of different artists who worked for Philles Records. I never figured out whether it was Philles itself or some distributor who laid these records on the post, but we all took our copy home and put it on the turntable to see what it sounded like. I remember having no idea what to expect.

Of course, the rest is history. This was producer Phil Spector's now-legendary Christmas album, performed by his talented stable of artists -- Darlene Love, the Ronettes, the Crystals, and Bob B. Soxx & the Blue Jeans. They put the "wall of sound" behind the holiday classics and in the process turned them upside down. Within a few days, we were all singing along. And although there was only one modern song -- Darlene Love doing "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" -- the unique arrangements of some of the classics were the only ones we kids had ever heard. By default, they became the "official" versions of these songs in our little heads.

And so to our other two Christmas LPs -- the Andy Williams Christmas Album and Christmas Sing Along with Mitch -- was added this third entry. At first we didn't have a shorthand name for it -- no one in the house had ever heard of Phil Spector, and so we weren't ready to identify it by his name, and "A Christmas Gift for You" was too sappy. But one night, while we were putting up the Christmas tree in our little living room, my father's older brother (who lived upstairs and was constantly dropping by) made a request that will be forever etched in our family history.

"Jackie," said Uncle Billy, "put the Colored Christmas Album on."

Given the era, this label meant no disrespect. Indeed, it was the most polite phraseology that our folks could have come up with. If they were intending to show disapproval of this music, a different word -- which I wouldn't write anywhere, much less on the Internet -- would have been used. No, the phrase "Colored Christmas Album" was perfectly consistent with Peace on Earth and Good Will Toward Men.

Ironically, there were many players involved with the record who were not members of racial minorities. Spector himself, of course. And if you look through the credits on the back you see names like Leon Russell, Nino Tempo, and Sonny Bono. But the lead performers were, indeed, all people of color.

It really didn't matter. We played that Colored Christmas Album, and played it, and played it, and loved it.

As with so many great records, my actual vinyl disk of the album is long gone. Nowadays, I have a mid-'70s reissue on vinyl and the remastered CD that came out in the Spector "Back to Mono" box a decade or so ago.

But for some reason I managed to hold onto the original dust jacket, now yellowed but otherwise in pretty good shape. The liner notes, signed by Spector, illustrate the raw ambition of the project:

Can Twelve Great Christmas Songs be treated with the same excitement as is the original pop material of today; sung by four of the greatest pop artists in the country; produced with the same feeling and sound that is found on the hit singles of these artists, without losing for a moment the feeling of Christmas, and without destroying or invading the sensitivity and the beauty that surrounds all of the great Christmas music? Until now, perhaps not! But I am sure after you listen to this album, you will agree that the answers to these questions are found in every groove of this album.... Because Christmas is so American it is therefore time to take the great Christmas music and give it the sound of the American music of today....
No shortage of cockiness there, and the final cut on the record, a voice-over by Spector, patting himself on the back over the strains of "Silent Night," is even bolder in its hubris. But he was right.

These days the vets who threw the parties for us are almost all gone, and the kids who ran around the back of the post are now greying parents, and even grandparents. A few of them went to 'Nam and made it back, and now they run the post themselves.

Mitch Miller is nowhere to be found. And although there's a copy of the Andy Williams album in our CD collection, it probably will not be playing during prime tree-trimming time at our house this year.

No, we'll probably be listening to that one that Uncle Billy liked. We'll just have to call it something different in front of the kids.

Tuesday, December 10, 2002

My favorite uncle

Or is he young enough to be my cousin? Anyway, I'm looking forward to hearing from this guy.

Sunday, December 8, 2002



Hi, is Tony there?

I think you've got the wrong number.

Is that you, Jack?

Yes. Who's this?

It's Joan. Joan Osborne.

Joan!... Er, wow, how are you?

Oh, I'm fine. Real busy with the new album out. How 'bout you?

Same as it ever was. Finishing up another semester teaching law school. Now it's exam time, so I'm inflicting pain on people.

Don't beat yourself up, Jack. I'm sure you're as gentle and fair as you can be.

Well, I try. That's nice of you to say.

So. I'm glad I caught up with you.

Why's that?

Well, a little bird told me you were writing about me in your blog, but I looked at it and there were just some rants about the phone company or something.

There is a post mentioning you, but it isn't on my main blog. A friend of mine and I started a new one about music. It's called Yakety Yak. You were in a post of mine over there.

What did you say about me?

Um... what did you hear?

Well, I heard that you said I was hot.

Come on, you know I'd be a little more careful than that. I think the direct quote was that I still had a crush on you.


Well, it's been going on for a while. I remember seeing you on Letterman a long time ago. I think you were singing "Right Hand Man." It made an impression.

It sure took you a long time to say anything about it.

Actually, it kind of went dormant until I saw you in the Motown movie the other night. I got interested again right then and there.

But what do you know about me?

Really not a whole lot. That's what makes it a crush. I mean, I know you have a great voice, great style. I love the simple clothes, the curls...


But I think it's the dimples. The dimples really do it for me.


And you were so sweet with the Motown guys.

Those guys are so wonderful. Too bad about Pistol and Johnny.

Yeah, it's a shame.

So what do you do when you have a crush on a woman?

Joan, um, I don't know if we should talk about that. I mean, I'm married and all. Happily married.

Awww. You know, it's just a blog fantasy, Jack. You can open up to me.

I better not. Look, I just think you're fabulous, and I wish you all the best, can we leave it at that?

For now, I guess. Is it o.k. if I call you back sometime? Especially when I try to get through to Tony and his line's busy with all those other girls.

Tony's a young man, Joan. Whaddya expect?

I know. But sometimes I need to talk.

Tell you what, dear, you can count on me for that.

And you know I'm gonna look at that blog post.

Great, please do.

I'm gonna run now. Keep writing, Jackie.

Keep singing, Joan.



Saturday, December 7, 2002

Free market follies

Oregonians with a taste for the bizarre usually need go no further than their mailboxes to satisfy their cravings. Last week it was a six-page newsletter from the Port of Portland about its highly curious airport noise "study." Yesterday it was a thick packet from the power company inviting us to choose from among no fewer than six different types of electricity contracts.

Under a law passed by the 1999 Oregon Legislature in the midst of the Enron-manufactured phony energy crisis, all of us here in the Beaver State now get the chance to pick from a variety of "energy supply options." You've got your "Basic Service," your "Time of Use" plan, your "Seasonal Flux" plan, or any one of three choices for "renewable power": something called "Fixed Renewable, Blue Sky," your "Renewable Usage, Green Mountain Energy Electricity," and lastly your "Habitat, Green Mountain Energy Salmon-Friendly Plan."

Sound like a lot to digest? Have no fear. The power company includes not only an enrollment form and a dense, small-print explanatory letter, but also not one but two brochures with all the essential details. The enclosure I like the best is "Your Power Options at a Glance for Residential Customers," which folds out into a byzantine 8.5-by-25-inch (not a typo) collection of data, including seven tables, six pie charts, and six bar graphs. And I'm no expert, but the type on this looks like 10 point at most. Some "glance"!

Not only am I insulted at the suggestion that the average resident can, or should have to, actually understand all this crap. What's really aggravating is thinking about how much it all must be costing the consumers and/or taxpayers of our fair state. Not to mention all the time that is being wasted by anyone who takes this seriously.

Fortunately for me, the folks at the power company have done a bit of ciphering on my behalf, and they tell me that "Basic Service" is still likely to be the cheapest for me. And to stick with "Basic," I don't need to respond. But "Time of Use" is a close second, just a dime a month more expensive, and that's just an estimate based on an "average" usage pattern. Who knows whether our household could do better, since we do burn more power than our neighbors in the wee hours of the morning?

You know what? I don't care. Call me a crazy nut, but I'm going to throw all this material in the round file where it belongs, and stick with "Basic Service."

This is the second round of this nonsense we've gotten. The first came with the start of this ludicrous regime last summer. One of my fondest wishes for the new year is that there will be no third round of it.

The Oregon Legislature is such a disgrace. Here we are in a major fiscal crisis, with public schools falling apart, the public employee pension system about the swallow up the state's entire economy, an 11 percent retroactive state income tax increase on the ballot in January, and unemployment virtually leading the nation, and what does the citizenry have to show for the work of our lawmakers? Junk legislation like this.

Now that we've realized that the boys at Enron were jerking everybody's chains and selling us a fake image of the power market, let's go back to the sensible system we had before. You know, the one every sane state still has. Hey, Gov-Elect Kulongoski, are you listening? Please do us all a favor and stop this insanity before we get another one of these atrocities in our mailboxes.

And the rest of you Salem solons, enough with your ham-handed attempts at free market engineering. If you want another thousand bucks a year or so from me in income taxes, please do your jobs and put some elbow grease to something that matters more than knocking a quarter a month off my electric bill.

Friday, December 6, 2002

A rare night at the flicks

I never go to the movie theaters any more, but I made an exception for "Standing in the Shadows of Motown." Sneaked in there yesterday for a discount 5:15 show. I loved the film. My review is over on Yakety Yak.

The Funk Brothers

I finally got out to see "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" yesterday, and my overwhelming reaction is one of gratitude to the filmmakers. This feature-length documentary on the careers of the "Funk Brothers" -- the stellar house band for Motown Records during its heyday in the 1960s -- is not just a valuable contribution to rock and soul history, but also a very thoughtful and loving tribute.

The idea of the movie is simple. Get whoever's still alive among the Motown sidemen back together, and try to get them a little bit of their due, 35 or 40 years late. Interview them in the "snakepit" -- Motown "Studio A." Cruise around Detroit to places where some of it happened. Hire a few actors to play out a few flashback scenes. Then put the Funk Brothers together on stage for a monster session playing some of the big hits with guest artists. And an important, unspoken rule: Not a current note is to be heard from any of the stars who stood in front of these guys on the Motown stage. No live appearance by Smokey, Stevie, Diana, Michael, etc. (although Martha Reeves is interviewed fairly extensively). Moreover, not a word, live or recorded, from Berry Gordy, the much-honored founder of Motown. This movie is most decidedly not about them.

For devotees of Motown, it's a riveting and revealing couple of hours. Andre Braugher of "Homicide" fame narrates a great series of sequences in which even die-hard Motown fans are likely to learn quite a few new tidbits. Did you know that the "Funk Brothers" played behind the Capitols on "Cool Jerk"? Or that they developed some of their rhythms and riffs while working part-time backing up an "exotic dancer" in a Detroit dive?

The concert itself is great fun, with strong performances by a number of non-Motown stars. Chaka Khan is totally at ease and in command; Bootsy Collins gets everybody going; and MeShell Ndegeocello somehow stays in the groove with the guys while seemingly trying to exorcise some of her own demons onstage with the Motown songs. Gerald Levert and Tom Scott put two heads together and almost cover what Junior Walker did with one. And a young guy named Ben Harper offers such a fine reading of "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" (Marvin Gaye version), and such right-on comments afterward, that he advances his own career at the same time as saluting the Brothers.

The outsider interviews are just right, too. For example, some great perspectives are offered by Hollywood music producer Don Was, who to my ears has occasionally gotten as close as anyone else to reproducing the Motown sound (although of course, no one can completely succeed there). Perhaps the best line of the film comes from another modern admirer, the drummer Steve Jordan, who correctly observes that with instrumental tracks this great, you could have had Deputy Dawg singing over them, and they still would have been huge hits. There are also some very revealing and sometimes touching conversations between the younger artists from the concert and the polite, supportive Motown masters.

At times, it seems that this project was put together about 15 years too late. For example, a few grainy video clips are all that we hear from Earl Van Dyke, who reigned over the "gorilla piano," and Robert White, who gave us, among other fine moments, the wonderful guitar lick that opens "My Girl." One wonders if "Shadows" might have benefited from having those two alive and participating. Both died in the '90s. (Of course, bass master James Jamerson and drummer Benny Benjamin are long since gone; their deaths are part of the core story.)

One thing is for sure: This film was made just in the nick of time. Lead drummer Richard "Pistol" Allen, who for my money steals the show in the concert, passed away before the movie was even printed, and soft-spoken pianist Johnny Griffith left us just as the movie was being released a couple of weeks ago. Without those two, critical mass would surely have been missing.

If the movie has a fault, it is being too literal and repetitive with its message: that these guys were phenomenal musicians, without whom the "Sound of Young America" would never have been the great art that it became, and they never got their due. O.k., o.k., give us credit for being smart enough to absorb that after it's mentioned the first five times. Just let 'em talk, and let 'em play. The perfunctory Vietnam references also seem forced. Yes, perhaps our soldiers listened to Motown songs as they were killing Viet Cong, but that's not much of a connection. What about Edwin Starr's "War"? Not even mentioned. Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On" gets prominent discussion, and yet the album's message isn't spotlighted.

But these are nitpicks. For a serious Motown fan, this is a must-see, and the DVD will be a must-have. (At the risk of sounding like a bad trailer, you'll never listen to your Motown collection the same way again.) For anyone else, enjoyment of the movie will be in direct proportion to his or her appreciation of the Motor City sound.

I had a great time, I learned a lot about something I really enjoy, and I look forward to reading the book. Oh, and there is one other significant item to report: For reasons that I cannot fully explain, I still have a wicked crush on Joan Osborne.

Wednesday, December 4, 2002

Billy, it was so rude of you to leave

Sixteen years ago this week, the world lost a great rock star, cut down way before his time. So early did he die that most of the world never got to see or hear him. Those of us who enjoyed his performances over a few, brief, sweet years here in Portland will never forget.

His name was Billy Rancher, and when he burst onto the local bar scene he was hardly old enough to drink in the places he was playing. In 1980 and 1981, after he and his brother Lenny broke up their band the Malchicks, Billy assembled a new band around himself and called them the Unreal Gods. They proceeded to tear the house down with an amazing array of rock and ska influences all rolled into a brand of music that Billy dubbed "boom chuck rock." "Boom chuck, boom chuck, boom chuck -- ch-chuck" was how the drums would go. We'd all sing along -- with the drums, mind you! It was that catchy. And, quite unusual for the local circuit they were riding, the Gods were playing mostly original numbers -- only an occasional cover to be heard -- which made it all the more stunning.

Boom chuck rock was as danceable as all get-out. The little La Bamba club downtown and the big Lung Fung Dragon Room out on SE 82nd Avenue would positively steam up when the Gods hit the stage. And it was visual, too, with a pair of tasseled Goddesses who proved to all who witnessed them that, yes, go go boots could make a comeback at any moment. The scene was so theatrical, so electrifying. Hard to take your eyes off the stage, it was so intense. The charisma flowed from a lot of directions, but one thing that drew the entire audience in was how much Billy and his mates cared about this music. I remember shaking his hand in the foyer of some dive one night after his show was over. (You stayed to the end of the Unreal Gods, even if you were going to look and feel like hell at work the next day.) And the guy shook every last hand walking out to that parking lot as he sipped on a shotglass of peppermint schnapps.

Funny music, too. Tongue in cheek through at least half of it. Songs like "My Girlfriend's Drawers" (possibly referring to furniture, probably not) and "Rude Buddy Holly" ("Buddy, it was so rude of you to leave!"). A young man's outlook, but with wicked wit and wisdom.

The band cut an indie record on its own and headed down to L.A. to show it around. They signed a record deal, and I think they may have even cut an album in a big-time New York studio. Fame and fortune seemed just around the corner. But it wasn't long before the amazing journey took a major detour: Billy, in his mid-20s, was diagnosed with lymphoma.

The medical ordeal took Rancher away from us for a long time, and when he came back, the story was different. It had to be. Now on top of everything else, Billy was being a strong fighter in the face of The Big Reality. But he kept going, with songs about Christmas, songs about his girl, songs about peace. Not as funny, not nearly as raucous. But still jaw-dropping awesome.

I saw him backstage one time after he got sick, at the hotsy-totsy Schnitzer Concert Hall, of all places. The hall had just opened following its big renovation, and a bunch of performers were doing a benefit for some noble cause. It was late fall of '84, I think. I was an extra in a dance/performance art piece being done by a friend, who in those days was known as Vincent Martinez. Anyway, while a large group of us were waiting to go on with Vin, in comes Billy and another guy -- I think it was Lenny -- and they worked out a little acoustic number on a guitar or two. It might have been "Happy Santa Claus," but I may be misremembering. Knowing about Billy's medical condition, I was craning my neck to see if I could get a glimpse of how he was doing. He looked o.k. for that night, at least.

When you're a 20-something partying in a club, it's not easy to tell whether what you are enjoying so much is timeless, or just the group du jour. Your hormones are raging, you're finally grown up and trying to figure out what that means, and it may not be until years later that you can appreciate what mattered and what didn't.

But we were right about Billy Rancher. He was an Unreal God, indeed.

If you ever see the album "Boom Chuck Rock Now" for sale, and you don't have a copy, buy it. If you don't want to keep it, send it to me and I'll buy it from you. I think the CD is readily available in a few places for around $15. The vinyl LP, on the other hand, is a collectors' item. I've heard prices of $50 and $65. But you won't get mine for 10 times that.

Tuesday, December 3, 2002

Now the jingle hop has begun

The Thanksgiving weekend agenda at our house includes breaking out the Christmas music once again. The box gets bigger every few years, what with an average of two additions per annum. For the last couple of years, we didn't even get around to playing everything in the box.

Lately the acquisitions have included some oddballs. James Brown and Boxcar Willie -- well, they ain't Bing Crosby, if you know what I mean. And when Odetta starts singin' 'bout dat lil baby in a manger, you know this is not your grandpa's Christmas music. (Not my grandpa, anyway.)

My spouse and I have been trying to explain the Christmas thing to our two-year-old for the past week or so, and as I drew the first CD out of that box and popped it into the machine, I suggested that we all dance to some Christmas music. When the green light came on and that first cut kicked off, all three of us starting bopping around happily -- merrily, I guess you'd have to say.

And then I realized I was re-enacting a scene from my childhood, when I was three or four years old. Because we were doing the same thing that my parents did with me, and with the very same song: Bobby Helms's "Jingle Bell Rock."

Now don't get me wrong, I know that there are people out there who are sick of this little number. It's corny as hell, and who can avoid being bombarded with it at least once a day for about three weeks every December? But for some reason, I never get tired of it. I just think it's a beautiful way to spend two and a half minutes.

There's the awesome hook that starts and ends it -- a little guitar spinoff of a traditional classic that makes a real statement: It's "Jingle Bells," folks, but you never heard it like this before (and in '57, when they made this record, indeed you hadn't). Years later, Joni Mitchell took the same few bars in a much, much darker direction, but with a similar, big impact.

The structure of "Jingle Bell Rock" is so simple -- a couple of verses, a couple of bridges, and of course the hokey background chorus gets a crack at a verse, and before you know it, you're putting your partner through one last spin and you're done. And no sappy, drawn-out fade here. A crisp, clean ending with more or less the same hook that started it off. Bravo!

Back in the days when Helms recorded this, it was considered country music. I never paid much attention to that sound back then, or any time since, really. You're talkin' Jim Reeves and Eddy Arnold's style, which is too sticky sweet for me, especially with the saccharine background singers. I think I have an early Willie Nelson record that shows him trying to deal with all that, and it's easy to see that he and Waylon Jennings had to bust out of there or die. (Which suggests an interesting parallel to the difference between the weirdness that passes for "country" music today and the more interesting "American roots" music that is being made by people like Steve Earle, but that's for a different blog entirely.)

To get back to the point: For a nice little Christmas record to dance to with your loved one, for my money it's hard to beat "Jingle Bell Rock."

A bit of research on the song reveals some noteworthy facts. Allegedly its real authors -- Helms and the guitar player with the killer lick, a fellow named Hank "Sugarfoot" Garland -- never got credit for writing it. That credit was given to two guys who wrote a similar song called "Jingle Bell Hop," which Garland and Helms are said to have used as the base for their own composition. These copyright hassles confuse and depress me to no end, but I'm sure what emerged from the studio and wound up on my record player had a lot more to do with Garland and Helms than whatever the other guys wrote.

Helms was a very talented fellow who had a few other hits. "My Special Angel" was a biggie for him, but I can remember only a bad white-boys-in-sweaters cover of that one by the Lettermen or the Vogues in the late '60s. Garland went on to be quite a jazz guitar player after he left Nashville behind, but when last heard from he was still pretty bitter about not having the royalties from "Jingle Bell Rock" to live off in retirement. Helms died about five years ago, and from what I could read, he laughed the whole thing off.

Hank, Bobby, wherever you are: You should have seen the look in my kid's eyes tonight when that song came on the second time. There isn't enough money on earth to pay you fairly for that.

Monday, December 2, 2002

Spam on paper

In the mailbox today, 18 (count 'em, 18) catalogs from various retailers.

Who needs TV?

There's so much absorbing material right here on the Internet. Have you caught the Bleat's act yet?

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