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.]