Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Snow Day

(by Bill Glahn)

Trip Shakespeare’s “Snow Days” isn’t a song that would usually find its way into my rock ‘n’ roll heart. There’s the bloated, almost operatic, singing. There’s the idea that “real” rock ‘n’ roll has its origins in the streets, not the highly academic origins of the band members. And there’s the academic “wit” of some of the lyrics. Chainfields? Motor Veins? But sometimes you just have to put working class chauvinism aside. “Snow Days” has a place in my heart and has had one since I first heard it on a trip to Minneapolis in the mid-‘90s, several years after its release.

It snowed yesterday in Springfield, MO. Snows aren’t unheard of in South Central Missouri or Northwest Arkansas, my primary locations since 1989. They are this early in the year. Having spent a good deal of my growing-up and adult years in New Jersey, there is a certain nostalgia attached to snow. But nostalgia is poor fodder for a good rock ‘n’ roll song.

I’ve got a story. Several, actually.

When my father was transferred to McGuire Air Force Base in 1965, snow days were an opportunity, not an escape from school. For the children of enlisted men, the opportunity was to make some money by teaming up with other kids to shovel the sidewalks. The good money was across the boulevard that separated the officer’s quarters from the lower income enlisted families. In those days, all Base Housing (except for General’s quarters which were comfortable brick houses with landscaped yards a few miles away) consisted of town houses built in courts of 18 units each. In our court there were something like 90 kids – one of the largest concentrations of juveniles in the whole complex and with a sufficient number of snow-shoveling age to form an impressive work force. We learned quickly that the best way to negotiate wages was to team up. Nowadays some people would probably refer to us as “union thugs.” As far as I can determine, Base Housing is now privatized. Probably the snow removal as well.

After my father left the Air Force my older brother and I would team up with other kids in the Holly Hills neighborhood of Mt. Holly (mostly ex-military) and then Prospect Heights, a working class neighborhood in Trenton. Old enough now to have a paper route, my parents were insistent on “saving money for college.” Record money would still be mostly dependent on the annual winter weather. From the beginning, I used the windfall of snow day cash to fuel my passion for music. First there were new singles by chart acts like Stevie Wonder, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Mamas & Papas, Aretha, Glen Campbell – mixed with 5 for a dollar cut-out singles of older tunes. I had a lot of catching up to do, having missed the soul wave in the segregated play lists of South Carolina. During the last couple of years of my snow-shoveling days it turned to albums. The last album I remember buying with snow money was the White Album. I probably wore that one out by January.

Once indoctrinated into the world of grown up labor, snow days meant something entirely different. They meant a brief respite from the ever-increasing demands of management. In the 21st century version of labor/management relations, things have declined to a point where labor is expected to brave the weather in all kinds of storms. There are no snow days. Show up for work or else. This includes all types of labor - lower level management, industrial workers, cash-register clinkers, fast-food workers, teachers… all of us. Lower pay, lower benefits, lower safety… “We are all outlaws in the eyes of (corporate) Amerika.”

The guy I most admired at my last job before I retired was the one who NEVER came to work if there was so much as 1 snowflake falling from the sky. The supervisors would make it a point of mocking and belittling him at warehouse meetings. “So-and-so made it and they live 20 miles away. How come you can’t?” It never flustered the guy. “I won’t risk my safety for this job.” He’d been employed there for about 15 years. He was a good worker, knew his job well. They threatened to fire him – never did. Everyone knew it was just his way of throwing the finger at an employer who didn’t want to pay him anything close to his value. Still… there were those who succumbed to the pettiness and labeled him a “sissy.” The fucking guy had more guts than all of them combined. As far as I know, he’s still employed there. I’m positive he didn’t go to work yesterday.

What has all this got to do with “Snow Days,” the song?

It’s this. Despite an aura of pomposity, when it comes right down to it, “Snow Days” envelops the subversive nature that is essential to a lot of great rock ‘n’ roll – this time with a beautiful arrangement and a calming piano break. It tells the tale of a dedicated and overworked teacher on a day when the snow is falling. And the respite that a day off can provide, if she’ll only take it. "There’s a blessing on the ground. Go home." That's rock 'n' roll.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Let The Motherfucker Burn! William Elliott Whitmore reaches fever pitch.

(review by Bill Glahn)

When William Elliott Whitmore began his opening set at the Granada Theater in Lawrence with “Mutiny” on Oct. 22, he was clearly in a defiant mood. So was the crowd, answering the call & response with vigor.

“Let the motherfucker burn.” “Let the motherfucker burn.”

Whitmore, armed with only banjo and bass drum, was attacking both with vehemence. And an urgency that these times call for.

Will Whitmore is a farmer by birth. He’s been planting seeds at shows in Lawrence, Kansas for 19 years by his own account. It showed. This crowd came early - no stragglers or “fashionably late” hipsters. When Whitmore took the stage, everyone who was going to be there was already there. And the joint was packed.

Whitmore has a voice that sounds like it grew up out of the dirt. There’s a welcome quality to it that contrasts to the, too often, dry vocals of too much of today’s politically oriented Americana. It’s field holler singing. And that makes sense. Whitmore still lives on the family farm in a house that has no bathroom. His albums tend to be short – more akin to vinyl length - no filler. He’s not wired for the “technological age.” His only contact info on his web page is a post office box.

Whitmore has a new record out. (cd, vinyl and download). It’s called Kilonova and is a departure from past releases in that it consists completely of cover versions. Don’t expect a “Great American Songbook” nostalgia trip, though.  Some of the songs will be familiar to long-time followers from past set lists. These are songs that Whitmore finds a kinship with, interpreted in a way that is 100% personal.

There’s a wide range of material on Kilonova, songs from artists that predate his birth to songs of a more contemporary age that you might expect from a man of Whitmore’s age (40). The first Youtube release was The Magnetic Field’s “Fear of Trains.” The second was “Busted”, written by a songwriter with farming roots, Howard Harlan, and recorded by both Johnny Cash and Ray Charles in 1963.

In Whitmore’s hands, “Fear of Trains” is starker than the original, captivating the flavor of the lyrics more fully. In light of the recent Kavanaugh hearings, it’s downright prescient. “Busted” is the state of being for working class Americans in this century. But there’s more.

“Don’t Pray On Me,” “Five Feet High And Rising,” and “Ain’t No Sunshine” all capture a sense of desperation that exists today. “Bat Chain Puller,” the conclusion of Kilonova, exposes the root of that desperation, rife with metaphors that a man of the dirt can appreciate.

Whitmore concluded his concert in Lawrence where he started – with “Old Devils,” a song referenced in “Mutiny” delivered with the same fervor. The man has stamina! It’s going to take a good dose of that from his audience as well. Lawrence was up to the task.

I’ve been travelling around the Midwest with my dog, Sally, taking notes. In the last few days I passed through eastern Iowa and western Wisconsin, home turf for Will Whitmore. It’s under water. Said one farmer, "I'm about to break the first rule of farming - never complain about the rain. What started off as a '100 year rain' is now a 500 year rain. If it rains like this for another week, there won't be a crop to harvest." The preservation of the earth is high on William Elliott Whitmore’s priority list. He starts the second leg of his tour tonight with label mates, Murder By Death, in Washington, D.C. at the 9:30 Club. If the crowd responds loud enough and long enough maybe the politicians at the Capitol will hear them. “Let the motherfucker burn!”

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Chop Chop Chop Chop Chop

(by Bill Glahn)

In 1980, a man named Art Evans founded a company in Indiana that made riding lawn mowers. These weren’t ordinary lawn mowers. They weren’t even ordinary riding lawn mowers. They had a zero-turn radius and an engine so powerful that it could even overcome a parking brake, fully applied. They were (and still are) the Dragsters of lawn care for those who can afford them.

With Indiana, being the most northern of “southern states” and with a historical attachment as a Klan bigotorium*, it seems entirely logical that Evans would call his company Dixie Chopper. Indiana has competition these days. The bigotorium has expanded.

It also seems logical that Textron would buy the company in 2014. Textron is a corporate behemoth specializing in aerospace, defense, security, and advanced technologies. Read that as an instrumental part of the military-industrial complex. There would be no name change. “Dixie” sells.

This tends to set my imagination into high gear. I imagine a horror film – a nightmare-come-to-life. In this film, Dixie Chopper comes out with a new model to keep up with the times. It’s called the Trumpster. It’s top-of-the-line, able to cut down human beings at astonishing rates. It’s lubricated by Mitch McConnell Oil Products. It has a “cow-catcher” out front dubbed The Betsy, useful in stunting all but the most elitist of weeds. And those ignition problems early Dixie Choppers were notorious for?  They are outsourcing the fix for that to a company called Scotus Inc. Once the machine starts, it keeps on going. The chassis is a thing of mystery. Termed the Trump Base, it is unexplainable – proprietary in nature. Scientists are befuddled. This machine seems to be built on blind faith. It’s a blessed machine that can do no wrong. Ask any Evangelist. The brakes have been disconnected. It’s out of control and can’t be stopped.

The cost of a Dixie Chopper is high. Incredibly high. Like any overpriced machine (or law) it needs a strong ad campaign. And Dixie Chopper has one. “The Trumpster -Making lawnmowers great again.” Remember that the Trumpster model is for mowing down people. No problem. “Hop on board to the land of cotton. Old times there are not forgotten.” “ Dixie” plays in the background. It’s alluring.

Chop chop chop chop chop

Coming up with an appropriate ending for my horror flick is going to take more imagination than I have. Dixie doesn’t exist anymore. It’s the land of Kudzu now. Kudzu could stop a Dixie Chopper but it’s got some pretty devastating consequences of its own. Wrong ending. If he could be found, Superman couldn’t throw this machine into the sun. There are too many distracted consumers still clinging to the undercarriage. Maybe I’ll call the Parkland students. They’re the brightest minds at script writing for horror flicks. If they haven’t found a suitable ending for theirs, they are certainly moving towards one. Or maybe the Women’s March organizers. They haven’t killed all the monsters yet. But they’re pretty effective at installing brakes. The pipeline resistors? The Poor People’s Campaign? They are growing in legion. Or maybe this is a script that requires the joint forces of ALL resistance.

I see a hand grenade being thrown into the combustion chamber – a crack in the engine block.

Chop chop… sputter sputter

But this is a music related bog, right? OK then. Here’s the soundtrack. Can you hear me?

* (thanks to William Allen White for the term)

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Crime Comes Knocking

(by Bill Glahn)

“You want to know what my version of gangsta is? Making your family top priority. If you ain't doing that and your spending more money on drugs than you are on your kids school clothes than you definitely not gangsta. Go steal from someone that works there ass off so you can go get high. GANGSTA. Lmfao. If I hurt your feelings than this applies to you. Don't trip though I been there myself and Im still trying to get my life right. I hope that one day I make it to where I can call myself a true gangsta. To my two beautiful daughters I'm so very sorry and ill be doing my best til the day I die to earn the right just to be called dad.” (Chris Seitz, August 12, 2018 Facebook posting)

Exactly one month later Chris Seitz would be dead.

Yesterday morning at 2:30 a.m. I was awoken by a loud, persistent knock and Sally’s aggressive barking. I got up, threw on some jeans, turned the front porch light on, looked out the window. It was a cop at my front door. “We’ve had some reports from this neighborhood that someone is going from house to house pounding on doors. Have you seen or heard anything?”

Still groggy from my sleep and more than a little irritated about being woken up at the wee hours of the morning, I answered sarcastically, “Not until now.”

The cop asked my name and jotted it down on his notepad and then asked my date of birth. “What has that got to do with anything?” He didn’t ask the question again.

“So nobody has tried to gain entry to your house in the last hour?”

“I’ve got the biggest dog in the neighborhood with the loudest bark. No one who’s ever walked down this street doesn’t know that.” On cue, Sally pushed her way forward to stand between me and the cop. He took a step back from the doorway.

“Ok, We may send someone around later in the morning with some more questions.” As he started to walk away I told him as an afterthought, “My neighbors on that side of me are camping until Friday. You may want to put a spotlight on their house and yard.” He thanked me for watching out for the neighbors and left.

What he didn’t tell me was that an hour earlier a man had been killed at the house directly behind mine while attempting a home invasion. I guess that’s standard operating procedure in an investigation.

Not being able to get back to sleep, I posted the following on Facebook. “There was a pounding on my door at 2:30 this morning. It was a cop. He said they had gotten a report that there was someone going around the neighborhood pounding on doors. My first response was, "Well if there wasn't before there is now."(3:18 am)

It got a lot of laughs. But when the early news came on TV, it was no laughing matter. My neighbor, Travis, whose backyard is directly behind mine, had shot a man. Dead.

I’m not putting any blame on Travis. I’ve only met him one time and he seems to be a pretty decent guy. I probably would have done the same in his circumstances if I owned a gun. In fact, I have empathy for him. It’s one thing to have a gun in your house for protection. It’s another thing entirely to have to use it.

No charges have been filed against Travis. The media has kept his name out of the news. The focus of ALL media reporting so far has been to explain Missouri’s Castle Doctrine - similar to the “stand your ground” statutes in some states but only applying after a home has been breached.

The name of the man he shot, however, has not been kept out of the news. The inference, lacking any background, is “He got what he deserved.” And that’s the way people hear it. Put one in the “pro-gun” column.

His name was Christopher A. Seitz. He worked, for a time, with both my oldest son and daughter-in-law. “It’s pretty upsetting,” is what my daughter-in-law messaged me.

I decided to check out his Facebook page to see if there were any public posts. There were plenty.

I don’t believe you can always get an accurate picture of someone from social media. But I think you can sometimes get the basic palette. Here’s what I found.

Chris Seitz had two estranged daughters. He loved his mom. He was 36 years old, but still struggled with the stunted maturity that I see in a lot of younger men and women – trying to create an image that is packaged and sold through much of today’s entertainment media. And conflicted or confused when finding out that “image” isn’t reality. Issues that used to be resolved in one’s late teens and early twenties were still issues for Chris as he approached 40. For some people, they never get resolved. Chris Seitz hadn't at 36. And now, he won’t ever.

The pictures on Fb depict a heavily tattooed and muscular man. He spoke in “gangsta” speak. His posts depict a not so unusual tendency for drama. He had friends who catered to the same “style.” They loved him and offered support - or what passes for love and support on social media. The most profound statement on his posts was “It's okay if you take five steps forward and 10 steps back just the next time you make a move 20 steps forward.” But the reality is that sometimes 10 steps back is one step to many.

I was talking to my other next door neighbor yesterday. He was one of several people to dial 911 around 1:30 in the morning. Chris Seitz had tried to break into his house as well. Dissuaded from doing so by two Dobermans, he headed through the backyard and over the fence, where he then broke through the back door of Travis’ house. That was his one step too many.

Nobody knows what Chris Seitz intended as he went from house to house trying to break down doors at 1:30 in the morning. I asked my daughter-in-law for a summary of the 6 months that Chris Seitz worked with her and my son. This is what she wrote: “He was a really cool guy and a really good worker. He was living in a halfway house at the time trying to get himself and his life back together for his family. By the sounds of everything, he probably fell back into drugs.”

Chris worked as a low-wage temp, trying to move into a responsible adult life and failing. It seems epidemic.

Whenever a bunch of us old codgers get together, whether it be at the work break gathering place, a retirement party, or the local watering hole, you hear: “The younger generation doesn’t have any concept of work.” “People can’t handle responsibility these days.” “All they want to do is take drugs and party.” “They complain about not being able to buy diapers and then go out and get $500 worth of tattoos.” “It’s not like when we were young.” Is it just the next older generation talking?

The Westside Neighborhood where I live is something of an anomaly these days – a low-income neighborhood where crime rates are low. Tenant ownership is high. It’s an old neighborhood with an aging population – one of the oldest “suburbs” in Springfield, swallowed up by the city limits as Springfield expanded. At strategically located locations there are signs that proclaim “THIS IS A NO NONSENSE CRIME PREVENTION NEIGHBORHOOD.” They are not small signs, nothing like those “neighborhood watch” signs that you see attached to traffic signs and such in some communities. They are the size of small billboards. They’ve been there a long time, funded by an organization called The West Central Betterment Association. WCBA doesn’t exist anymore. These days it’s been split in two – the Westside Betterment Association and the West Central Neighborhood Association.

West Central is closer to the inner city, plagued with high crime, slum lords, and drugs. Lots of drugs. There are no such signs in West Central. A main corridor, Kansas Expressway, separates the two neighborhoods. In West Central very few people own their homes. Many of the residential buildings are former two-story, one family homes that have been divided up into decaying four unit apartments. In both Westside and West Central, if someone went house-to-house trying to break in, you’d probably call it suicide by proxy.

In Westside, the homes are smaller, single story, single family cracker boxes and ranchers, with a low cost of entry. Owners have kept the slumlords at bay by opting to stay in the neighborhood and apply their savings to buy up the low end of the market - maintaining them in good working order and renting out at fair market value. Travis is such a landlord, owning a house across the street from his. By taking care of his rental property, he protects the financial integrity of his own home. By taking a “no nonsense” approach to crime, he protects his family.

But, still, slumlords have made some penetration into the neighborhood. And real estate profiteers have built some large apartment complexes along Scenic Avenue, the most traveled road to the west of Kansas Expressway. Crime has come knocking at the door and people are scared.

How did we get to this point?

The news tells us that today’s wages are “stagnant.” They are not stagnant for unskilled or low-skill labor. In terms of buying power, they have been in free-fall since 1970. 50 years ago, 1 in 3 Americans belonged to a labor union. Today that number is 1 in 10 - the vast majority belonging to public sector unions with little or no striking power. For-profit colleges hand out paper “diplomas” for training in jobs paying as little as $8-9/hr. Tuition has skyrocketed for more traditional degrees. We’re left with a generation of young and middle-aged people buried in student debt.

The median length of time in a job for people aged 25-34 is 3.2 years. People are job hopping for a 25-50 cent an hour raise to make ends meet. And the entertainment industry is selling the idea that anyone can make it on “style” alone.

Suicide is at an all time high.

Did Chris Seitz deserve to die? Nobody deserves to die. That includes Travis and his family. Fearing for the safety of his family, in today’s society, Travis took appropriate action. But if we don’t take a harder look at what motivates behavior in our society and act on it, there will certainly be more tragedies like this one. A shift in a direction is needed. One to where “no nonsense” doesn’t have to mean “no future.” Literally.


Monday, August 13, 2018

The Mike Felten Interview: Back To School Days

(by Bill Glahn)

As a young man in Chicago, Mike Felten played the local folk and blues circuit, sharing the stage with the likes of John Prine, Steve Goodman, and Pinetop Perkins. A recording career, however, eluded him. Instead of making records he began selling them. Mike opened a shop in Iron Mountain, MI (upper peninsula) and adopted a cartoon moose as it’s logo. When he eventually moved the store to Paulina Street in Chicago, the moose logo moved with it. The Record Emporium enjoyed some great success there, eventually moving from one storefront to two.

The Record Emporium, like all the best new & used record stores, had a funky urban atmosphere and fit in well with the working class neighborhood near Wrigley Field. Then gentrification came, and with it, high rents. Felten’s record store survived for awhile, but when an age of disc-burners and I-Tunes turned records and CDs into a doomed market, The Record Emporium’s fate was sealed. The upscale bar market was much more appealing to his landlords. The business that provided income enough, along with that of his wife – a nurse, to raise a family was providing no more. Felten began playing the club scene again, this time recording CDs to sell at whatever venue would have him.
The gigs began to multiply and Felten found himself touring the upper mid-west – around 150 gigs a year. He and his wife, Gail, retired and bought a house in Franklin Park in July 2016.

Then the unforeseen happened. In February 2018, his wife, Gail, was diagnosed with ALS. Those gigs from Detroit to St. Louis to Kansas City and other distant points? Well, they were no longer a possibility – at least not for awhile. Mike would have to stay close to home. Still – there is no shortage of places in and around Chicago to play. When I interviewed him before a gig at Sylvie’s on July 2nd, it was his 80th show of the year.

Felten is currently in the studio recording his seventh album. He doesn’t reveal too much about what the finished album will be like, though. “The songs are still working themselves out.”

Mike Felten: It’s 7:35 in the evening at Sylvie’s in Chicago!
Bill Glahn: Your new record – you were telling me it’s going to have a little more instrumentation on it. Cello?
MF: No, no. That was the last one. This one might be a little more sparse, this time. Harmonica, bass… I’ve got the drummer lined up and of course me. I don’t know. We have tentative sax player. Tentative keyboards. The blues are kind of stripped down. We’ll see how it goes with each one. If I feel it’s complete… I like the raw sounds.
BG: More blues than folky?
MF: Yeah… I’m going to try to do two CDs at one time – one more produced with all kinds of people on it and one with just me & guitar.
BG: Like the 1st album?
MF: Yeah, I like the first album. It was all me, playin’ different instruments. So it blew me away. (laughs) I kinda like that way so people get a chance to hear what I sound like in person. (Felten plays almost exclusively solo shows)

BG: Topically you’re usually in there… well, you sing about your father as a working man – “a used car life” is how I think you put it.
MF: Yeah, a used car life for sure.
BG: Your records have always been rooted in the working class – the working class in Chicago specifically – and Iron Mountain (Michigan mining country).
MF: More Chicago this time. A lot of mom & dad.
BG: How long has it been since your mom passed?
MF: About eight or nine years now.
BG: And your dad was early, right?
MF: Yeah, 1991. It’s getting’ to be… I think there’s only one living (ancestral) family member left. I try to commemorate some of the things they’ve gone through. The houses I’ve lived in. It wasn’t heaven but it damn sure wasn’t hell. I guess I’m still trying to find out who I am.
BG: I’ve talked to quite a few songwriters recently that just happened to be in their sixties. One of the things that come up time and time again is that some of the things that weren’t important in their twenties and thirties have become more important. It’s not nostalgic thinking but, rather, reflective thinking.
MF: You look more kindly on your parents and the choices they made. I get the overwhelming sense that the problems they faced and the problems I faced back then are the same problems we’re facing right now. They have to be redressed and reaffirmed. And it goes on and on like another cycle.
BG: Yeah, if you live long enough you go through a cycle or two. When you’re young you think you’re bulletproof, but then you find out you’re not.
MF: We had the war in Vietnam and then the Civil Rights movement… and we thought we put that behind us. You want to think we put all of that behind – some of the crap you saw. And here we are – we’re fighting the same battle.
BG: My view – I don’t know about yours - is that… some of those same people we knew who were fighting those things – Vietnam, Civil Rights, have reverted back to individualist thinking. Money changes things. An awful lot of them have no problem sitting back and watching Afghanistan go on for 17 years. Do you get political on this next record?
MF: Well, you know… kind of. I try not to beat people over the head but it’s part of who you are and you’re facing these struggles. I’ve got one called “Godzilla Jones” and it’s about fighting hard times – getting blood on your nose. Over and over again. And you’re older and you’re tired. So you’ve got to pass the ball on. I can understand the kids from Florida. “How could you get us involved in Vietnam?” - “How can you get us involved with weapons in the schools.” It’s just stupidity. Why? Why? Why can’t you have a better life? Why couldn’t this all be eradicated? What happened when we got rid of Nixon and all those other assholes -pardon me - that came back? No, don’t pardon me. They come back and come back again with the same old tired ideas and bullshit. You can look back to Andrew Jackson.
BG: It’s like every time a new generation comes around they try to sell the same old lie. The next generation hasn’t heard those lies before. History, these days, is not taught in schools. You have a unique position as a volunteer tour guide at the Chicago History Museum. Do you get a chance to address some of this stuff?
MF: Yeah. Actually we have a Facing Freedom workshop that we do. It was kind of an underused exhibit. It’s dedicated to all kinds of struggles – from the United Farm Workers to the Pullman porters. Kids don’t know anything about this. Even Suffrage. And you look at the Declaration of Independence. Who did this apply to? It applied to white men with property. Could women vote? Could people of different colors vote? You had all these disqualifications that were accepted. "All men were created equal." "We hold these truths to be self-evident." Well things changed. And they’re changing again. These kids we talk to are younger than the Stoneman-Douglas kids. But I told them that “you’re at the point where you’re challenging your parent’s authority. They’re not always right. But you’ve got to accept responsibility and to change things and look at your issues. Where do you want to be? What changes do you want to make? And it might be a change that I don’t like. Or it might be a change that your teachers don’t like or your parents don’t like. It’s your vision and it’s part of becoming an adult. And you can grow on that. There are no wrong answers here. You give me your answer.” And it might be an answer that I don’t expect. And sometimes it has been an answer that I didn’t expect.
BG: Are these young people there because they have curiosity - made the decision to go there on their own? Or school children as a class trip?
MF: School kids. There was one kid, a small boy, who said he was afraid of walking down the street when people of other colors were walking towards him. Do you cross the street? Another kid said “if they’re not friends, you cross the street.” But you have that issue. Do you feel safe and do you do things for your safety? Or do you placate someone who might be offended ? You have to educate yourself with what’s goin’ on. I told him to err on the side of safety. But that’s an option on this whole Facing Freedom deal. Is it safer to stay at home and let the war go on? Or do you stand up and get your ass beat? [Felten made that decision at the 1968 Democratic Convention where his head was split open by a Chicago cop.] But I also told him “You can choose this issue or that issue, but you can also choose to do nothing as well. But if you choose to do nothing, you’re beholden to whoever does what.”
BG: Do you ever learn things as a guide?
MF: Oh yeah! I learn stuff from kids all the time. Different perspectives. They’ll jump in there on something like gun control and they might be against it, depending on where the kids are from. Kids might not know who the Pullman porters were. They might not know who Rosa Parks was. They might think “Rosa Parks, a black woman gets on a bus – what’s the big deal?” She could have gotten killed on that bus. You gotta think about this. They don’t know anything about the women’s movement. Or the American Indian movement. Cesar Chavez – that’s another one. “I like grapes. Why should I boycott grapes?” Pullman porters – unionizing was not all about wages. What about identity? All the Pullman porters had to go by the name “George.” And black men, in those times, couldn’t form a union. But they stood up and did anyway!
BG: Once you reach to a livable wage, wages are no longer the best thing a union can do. Safety for one. Child labor laws. Racial equality in the workplace. Pensions. Some of these things are rolling backwards.
MF: With kids, everything’s about fairness. And you bring these things up and they think about it. What’s fair? Sometimes it’s “It’s not fair that I can’t go out with Johnny.” And the Parent has to consider “Is Johnny behaving responsibly?
BG: There’s a childish view of what fairness is and mature one.
MF: It’s called compromise. (laughs)
BG: It’s the idea that you can challenge things. It’s something you can establish very early on. It’s a very important thing.
MF: Yeah. It’s going to be interesting to see where they are in ten years.
BG: Social Security is the most successful socialist plan ever to pass into law in the United States. And it’s under attack. It’s something every young person ought to think about as much as old folks like us. Where do you come down on Socialism vs. Capitalism? Do people have to buy your records to find out? (laughing)
MF: Yeah. Buy ‘em. Buy ‘em all? Listen to them over and over. (much laughing) I try to tell stories because people like stories. I try to humanize what happens.
BG: I get that and I like the stories between the stories that you tell when you’re performing. Like about the workingman’s fireworks across the river at the smelting plants when you were growing up. Is that the style you prefer all the time or do you like to preach once in awhile?
MF: Well, I don’t like to preach at all. But one of my favorite songs is “How Many Wars.” That’s not something I would put on one of my albums, though. [It can be found on a Youtube collection of outtakes called Man + Guitar + Dog]

But Gail’s father was a paraplegic from WW 2. Her brother just died from the effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam. Her other brother did a couple of tours in Vietnam. And her son is a disabled veteran. I have a friend named Tim that was very badly wounded in Vietnam and eventually died. My dad had a friend that was in a POW camp during World War 2 – he got letters and things that my mom saved. He eventually started hearing voices, locked himself in a bathroom and killed himself. I don’t think my dad ever got over that. My dad never saw combat or anything like that, but this kid did.
BG: And those are people that did one or two tours. Today you have an all-volunteer army where guys are doing sometime 5-6 tours in the Middle East. Not to mention the people getting bombed and slaughtered in those countries. But there doesn’t seem to be any anti-war movement. There aren’t many Americans dying so there’s no outcry.
MF: Jan Maara – she’s a fairly successful folk singer, I think – she did this song called “Penny Evans” by Steve Goodman. I was sitting in the audience and she did a tremendous version of it. And lady in front of me said “I don’t want to hear that. I don’t want to be preached to.” This was in the ‘80s. And I thought, “Maybe people should be listening to this.” And lo and behold, we’ve had Grenada and Iraq and Afghanistan.

BG: I noticed over the years that you perform to a pretty wide variety of audiences. Sometimes it’s a fairly young audience that might not have come to see you specifically, but you got a good reaction and they seem to pay attention when they’re not drinking too heavy.
MF: I think the last time I saw you was in Kansas City and they were there to party. They reacted more to the up-tempo stuff, so I’ve put more of that into my set. You can tap your feet if you want. It seems like it’s working.
BG: Is there going to be more of that on the new record?
MF: Oh yeah! Most of it is up-tempo. There’s no sentimental ballads like “No More Wars” or “Working Man’s Paradise.” I mean, I love those songs but…
BG: How many shows are you doing a year now?
MF: Tonight’s show [July 2] is number 80 this year.
BG: I know you have some personal issues you’re working around this year and you’re booking dates closer to home. Are you able to keep that up?
MF: I want to play more folk festivals. Maybe next year. I’d like to play things like the Winnepeg Folk Festival. Americana festivals. Gail and I are Sooners fans- season ticket holders. We weren’t able to go to games this year, but she’s got a positive outlook and wants to go next season. I wouldn’t mind playing a club like the Blue Door while we’re out there [Oklahoma City’s best known club for songwriters]. We’ll see.

Fast Mikey Blue Eyes is the working title for Felten's next album. As for it being a Blues album he states "I have problems being called a blues guy. It is a lot of blues form, but I'm a white guy from the north side of Chicago (whatever that entails) - I'm not up from the plantation. I'm not usurping anyone's culture. The whole thrust of my music is being true to myself."

For sure songs:
Where the White Lady Lives
Ragtop Down
Godzilla Jones
Dead Old Girlfriend
Burnin and Lootin
Homan Avenue
Y'all Look Guilty

Homan Avenue? Isn’t that an infamous street in Chicago where cops routinely take suspects for "interrogation”? Felten isn’t saying. We’ll just have to wait for the CD.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Even Facebook Sometimes Must Have to Stand Naked

(by Bill Glahn)

When is an apology not an apology? When it's a lie. Unless you live completely off the grid (in which you wouldn’t be able to read this anyway) it would be impossible to miss the Facebook apology ad.

Facebook starts the ad telling all the wonderful things they set out to do for us. They follow admitting to only a poorly designed business plan. The ad concludes with this statement: “We’re committed to doing more to keep you safe and protect your privacy. So that we can all get back to what made Facebook good in the first place: friends. Because when this place does what it was built for, we all get a little closer.”

Alrighty then!

I’ve got a Facebook account. I’ve carefully cultivated it to include many like-minded friends. A large percentage of those are music fans, musicians, artists, poets, writers, photographers – all of legal age, most long of tooth like me. Imagine my surprise (NOT – this has happened before) when Facebook removed a post of mine for being “unacceptable for community standards.” The charge this time was nudity. So I did what I’ve done in the past when this happened. I lodged an appeal for a review. This takes seconds and in the past the result was always the same – Fb reinstated the post within minutes. Not this time.

The offending post? A YouTube video of The Pixies “Bone Machine” picturing only the album cover art from their 1st album, Surfa Rosa, which has been re-released in multiple formats. Wikipedia addresses the cover art: “Surfer Rosa's cover artwork features a photograph of a topless 'friend of a friend' of the band, posing as a flamenco dancer, pitched against a wall which displays a crucifix and a torn poster. Simon Larbalestier, who contributed pictures to all Pixies album sleeves, decided to build the set because ‘we couldn't find the atmosphere we wanted naturally.’ According to Larbalestier, Black Francis came up with the idea for the cover as he wrote songs in his father's ‘topless Spanish bar’; Larbalestier added the crucifix and torn poster, and they ‘sort of loaded that with all the Catholicism.’ Commenting on the cover in 2005, Francis said, ‘I just hope people find it tasteful.’”

Surfer Rosa has been certified gold in three different countries, could be found in any decent record store in the late '80s & '90s, and easily on the Internet in the current century. The cover is pictured on a plethora of high profile music-related sites. In short, it meets community standards for art - not pornography.

After several days I received a reply from Facebook that my appeal had been denied. They offered a 2nd review, supplying a drop down box this time for me to plead my case. I sent them links for the Pixies' Wikipedia page and another for the Wikipedia page covering nudes in art. From that page: “In one sense, a nude is a work of fine art that has as its primary subject the unclothed human body, forming a subject genre of art, in the same way as landscapes and still life. Unclothed figures often also play a part in other types of art, such as history painting, including allegorical and religious art, portraiture, or the decorative arts.”

I also did a copy & paste of the appeal and posted it on my Facebook timeline. The post for the Pixies page came with the same art as the video. The post for the art page came with a picture of Michelangelo’s David – with full penis exposure. I expected one of two things to happen – those posts would also be taken down and my account would be suspended. Or my original post would be re-instated. Neither has happened (yet?). Evidently Facebook doesn't want to be in the position of censoring the world's largest online encyclopedia.

I’ve pondered the situation for a half-day or so (getting pissed tends to throw one’s priorities out of wack). “Because when this place does what it was built for, we all get a little closer.” Huh?

I decided to check things out a little more. Seems there is an official Pixies page on Facebook. It’s been around for years. It has over 2 million “likes.” Out of those, 1.8 million “follow the page” (get new postings in their Fb news feed). The profile picture? The same Surfer Rosa album cover. The cover photo? A page wide image of the album cover 3 more times in each re-release format.

This new illusion that Facebook is trying to sell – one where they are not totally profit driven - is a boldface lie. But they are keeping up with the times, though, in this regard – they even lie to themselves. To quote the good Reverend, Al Sharpton, "I gotcha!" 

[Update: Facebook has denied a 2nd request to reinstate the "offending" post. They asked a follow-up question - "How do you rate this experience?" (rate by emoji) Pitiful.]

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Toll Road To Redemption - Mark Insley Ventures Out of the Desert

by Bill Glahn

There’s a road on the outskirts of Tucson in serious need of repair called Old Spanish Trail. To the east of the road is Saguaro National Park, home of America’s largest cacti - a beautiful, yet harsh landscape. To the west is a maze of sand and gravel roads that get narrower and ruttier the further in you dare to venture. This is where Mark Insley hangs his hat. He’s been hanging it there for the last 16 years. He hasn’t made any new music in the last 15 of those years.

Mark Insley might be the best-kept secret in Americana music. After three critically acclaimed CDs around the turn of the century, Insley seemed to vanish. In terms of musical output, he went mute.

Insley’s first release, Good Country Junk, was the result of his well-received stage act at the Palomino in Los Angeles. He enlisted members of Dwight Yoakam’s band (Scott Joss, Taras Prodaniuk, Pete Anderson), among others, and if there is one minor complaint about Good Country Junk, it’s that it was, stylistically, a bit too close to Yoakam. That’s not a bad thing as far as making a record, but it really didn’t offer anything fresh. That would change drastically with Insley’s sophomore album, Tucson.

Tucson featured another great support cast of players – Dave Alvin, Albert Lee, Tony Gilkyson, and some jaw-dropping organ contributions by Danny McGough. But the thing that makes Tucson a solid five-star record is not the players, it’s the songs. To borrow a phrase from Willie Nelson, these are the kind of songs that keep the jukeboxes playing - songs written by a man that feels things deeply, songs that cut to the bone and are delivered in a voice that reflects every note of that.

Insley’s third and final CD, Supermodel, carries that forward, including a remake of “The Devil’s Knocking” from Good Country Junk that is stunning in its transformation. These are the sounds of a man on the verge of breaking. And they are the last sounds the world has heard from Mark Insley.

So what happened? Insley’s pretty open about the last 15 years.

“Oh man, it’s not a pretty story. I had a couple of failed marriages. I had a good little run for a couple of years. I was hosting this thing downtown called ‘Arizona’s Most Wanted.’ I had bands coming in from all over the country – very few from Arizona. That didn’t really endear me to the local vox populi. That went away.

“You know, I fell in with a group of guys that were on the unsavory side. I was doing more drugs and alcohol than any man should live to tell about. I had this little run-in with the police for possession with intent to distribute and illegal possession of an automatic firearm. I ended up selling everything I had to hire the best criminal attorney in the state. And we beat all of that.

“You’d think I’d have learned my lesson but I just kept at it. So finally, a couple of years ago I got drunk and decided to go out for a motorcycle ride. I ended up in the hospital with a motorcycle handlebar puncture wound in my small intestine and third degree burns all over my legs.

“I kind of took stock of my life. Asked myself, ‘Do you want to die like this or live a little bit longer?’ I quit most of my bad habits and started working on my craft – my writing.

“I was doing a weekly gig at a BBQ joint and then that went away [a place on Old Spanish Road outside of the city, which went out of business]. I had another slow period and then in the last year I started sticking my toe in the water and seeing how it felt. And audiences seemed to respond. They like it. I like it.

“That’s what I do. So that’s what I want to do. I have enough songs to make an album. My plan is to go out to LA and record with some of my old cohorts. Some won’t talk to me anymore, but the ones that will – they seem interested.”

At 61 years of age, Insley has a different approach to his songwriting. Rather than in-the-moment songs of heartache, songs he refers to as “written under duress,” Insley is both reflective and forward-looking with some of his new material.

“About once a month I come into town and play this little joint called the Royal Sun. The gal that runs it is the one who actually coaxed me out of - I don’t know what you call it – semi-retirement? I went in there one time and she asked ‘You want to play here, don’t you?’ I thought, ‘Fuck no.’ But that started it. She just wouldn’t leave me alone until I said yes. And I’m glad she did. She’s a nice gal.

“Damon Barnaby – I’ve been playing with him for years. We like to do this duo thing there.”

It’s in these acoustic settings that Insley performs some of his recent tunes.

“My younger brother (Austin-based songwriter Dave Insley) has written songs about parents and family for years and I always thought, well, nobody really gives a shit about that stuff. But it’s just been within the last few years that I’ve begun to embrace these aspects of life. You realize you’re not immortal.”

But being reflective doesn’t have to mean losing your edge. Insley pulls a guitar out of its case and, in an interview setting, gives me an example of a new song from his days growing up in the farming community of Chapman, Kansas.

Called “My First Car,” it begins with a description of one of the ugliest and coolest (in a funky sort of way) cars Dodge has ever produced. Slant Six motor. Push-button automatic. By the time the song is over it’s a back-door murder ballad (the previous owner had murdered her husband and put the body pieces in the trunk).

And Insley describes the song as “absolutely true”. This is a new twist for Insley. It’s dark but it’s dark humor. It’s a great story delivered in a talking folk/blues style. It’s the kind of song that will go a long way in entertaining an audience, but not one that’s going to knock them off their bar stools.

“Now I’ll play you a song about the future.”

The future Insley is talking about is the same one we all face - death. And this one will knock you off your barstool. Lyrically it’s one of the most provocative songs Insley has ever written. Called “10-Cent Redemption”, Insley delivers with conviction. This isn’t just story telling. It’s confessional story telling with a vengeance. Pollyanna doesn’t live here.

I’m over-churched but I keep on sinnin’
I claim the good lord’s work but the devil’s winnin’ 

On June 20, Insley played his first gig in five years with an electric band. They didn’t play any new songs. “We’ve only rehearsed songs that the band knows from recordings.” When asked afterwards how it felt, Insley responded, “It felt great!” Insley hopes to enter the recording studio before the end of summer. The process will be a lot different this time. “I’ve never had to pay for recording a record.”

Insley still prefers the isolation of where he lives. “Nobody ever finds it. That’s why I live out there.” And there are tolls to be paid to travel out of those sand and gravel roads. Mark Isley is paying them a little at a time, but he’s paying them. And that gives fans of his old records something to hope for.

[This article appeared first in the BigO e-zine, Singapore's largest independent music publication.]