Friday, January 31, 2014

No. 125 – Test for Echo

Performer: Rush
Songwriters: Geddy Lee, Alex Lifeson, Neil Peart, Pye Dubois
Original Release: Test for Echo
Year: 1996
Definitive Version: Different Stages, 1998.

Speaking of collecting …

After I got my drivers license, every once in a while, I’d drive to one of the two card stores in Columbus. One was on the West Side in an area called the Hilltop. The other, which I went to once or twice, was out east on Oakland Park Avenue. I wasn’t into set-building—filling out my old sets—so I can’t tell you what I bought back then.

A decade later when I moved back home and I WAS into filling out old sets, both of those stores were gone. Fortunately more than a dozen had opened in their place in the interim.

This was at the height of card collecting. Yes, Upper Deck already had messed up the hobby irreversibly by jacking up the prices, but cards still were a buck a pack for base sets by all the companies and usually less at card shows. Internet commerce was nascent, so eBay hadn’t yet destroyed card stores.

One day in September 1996, I got a wild hair and scheduled a card-shopping day. Now living in Gahanna with Debbie, I had a few shops I stopped at regularly, but there were a few far south and west that I’d never visited. I decided to hit them all.

As I recalled, I did this on an extra day off, like I took vacation rather than just a typical Monday. (This was when I still worked the Tuesday-Saturday shift at The Dispatch.) I believe this, because it seemed like I needed to get permission from Debbie for this excursion, or at least approval. Maybe not. Either way, the plan was to get up early, do my shopping and be home for dinner.

I had my want list and a list of addresses as I headed out. I decided to start south of Reynoldsburg near Lockborne for the first address. I thought it had a lot of promise because it was close to Rickenbacker Airport, a former air force base now a huge air-shipping hub, but it was nothing, or I couldn’t find it. It seemed to be just a distributorship that was listed inappropriately. OK, on to Grove City.

As I drove into town, I realized that I’d never been to Grove City, even though I’d lived in Columbus for most of my 32 years. It didn’t take long to see there wasn’t much reason to visit … except for the card stores. The first one was just north of the “downtown” area. If it didn’t have a sign out front saying “baseball cards,” I never would’ve found it. It was a guy’s house. The parking was his driveway.

Tentatively, I pulled in and hiked to the front door. It said open, so in I went, and, yes, it unquestionably was a card store. The owner redesigned his front room so it had glass cabinets and shelves loaded with boxes of cards. It looked like any other card store.

He had a ton of stuff, new and old. At the time, I was filling in Will sets through the Nineties, and I loaded up, because his prices were reasonable. I also nabbed older Topps cards I needed to replace miscut cards from my youth. I don’t remember how much I spent there that day, but I knew that I had found a good new place, and for the rest of the time I lived in Columbus, I visited that “store” on a semi-regular basis.

The next store was in the “downtown” area, and it was almost all new stuff—and Beanie Babies. Moving on …

I next continued my way around I-270 to Hilliard, another suburb with which I was unfamiliar even though Upper Arlington was close by. The first store I went to was in the middle the “downtown” area there. It was nothing special, but it began the most memorable part of the day.

While I was in the store, a summer thundershower came through, so I stayed a little longer than I might have otherwise buying time while it poured outside. When I left, we had blue skies for the first time that day. The setting sun was shining against puffy white clouds, and it was going to be a beautiful evening.

I headed to the next store on U.S. 40, and I flipped on the radio. A few days before, Debbie announced that she had heard the new Rush song. It had been nearly three years since Counterparts, and I was more than ready for some new Rush. Well, as I drove along puddle-lined streets, the new Rush song—Test for Echo—came on. It was the first time I heard this song, and it made an immediate impression: Sounds like Presto/Roll the Bones. LOVE IT!

Alas, the final card store on my list was closed—as in permanently—so it was time to head home. I was running a little late, so I stopped at a pay phone to call Debbie to tell her I’d be home by 6, if not by the time she got home … and to tell her I heard the new Rush song.

We went out that night. I don’t remember where, but I recall that it was someplace good. The whole day had been just a really good day. That’s how you want to spend a day off work, right?

Thursday, January 30, 2014

No. 126 – Free

Performer: Phish
Songwriters: Trey Anastasio, Tom Marshall
Original Release: Billy Breathes
Year: 1996
Definitive Version: None.

I knew of Phish, of course, after my musical rebirth in 1992, but their music wasn’t on either MTV or the radio, so I didn’t know it. The first time I heard a Phish song was when I heard this one on the radio while driving around Reynoldsburg. I liked it right away.

As I’ve mentioned on several occasions, I tend to be a collector. My collecting bug went from Major Matt Mason to Hot Wheels to baseball cards to beer cans to G.I. Joe to Atari video games to shadowbox knickknacks to baseball memorabilia. At about that time, my collecting habit moved to something more adult (and expensive)—wine.

Debbie introduced me to wine and helped me gain an appreciation for it through dinners at her apartment, dinners out and a trip to Napa. For Christmas in 1996, Debbie bought me a subscription to Wine Spectator magazine. Wine Spectator was the switch that ignited my passion because of the price guide that runs at the back of each issue. Arranged by country (state for U.S. wines) and varietal, it made it easy to build a want list, like I have with baseball cards.

By this time, I’d discovered that white wine—even the smallest amount—gave me a headache, so I was strictly a red-wine guy, which I liked better anyway. That limited my list to a degree.

I’d go through my Wine Spectator, check out the score, the price and the amount produced of each wine, and if it fit a set of criteria, I’d list the wine, the type and the price to give me a ballpark idea of what I should be paying. I started with $20 bottles. If the score were 90 or above, I’d list it. Then I moved to $30, then under $50. Eventually, I moved to under $100, as long as the score was 95 or higher.

I kept my list in my car, so whenever I went anywhere, I’d have it handy if I were near a wine store. From there it was a matter of buying and trying. If it were something I particularly liked, I’d buy more.

As a result, I became known as something of a wine guy. I usually brought wine to family functions, and everyone would know that whenever Will brought the wine, it would be good, because it always was.

That said, I’m really not a wine connoisseur. I can’t tell you what wine would pair with what food any more than a few basics. I can’t taste a wine and break down its various hints. All I can tell you is whether this particular vintage by this particular vintner is good. Honestly, I think most of that is pretentious nonsense. It doesn’t matter WHY a wine is good, only that it’s good and that you enjoy it.

As with my other collections, I had a few wine-related adventures. One of my all-time favorite wines was a 1998 Chateau Souverain merlot. It was rated 92 by Wine Spectator, with a price of $18—right in my wheelhouse, heck, right in ANY wine buyer’s wheelhouse. It was memorably good. Even better, it was in almost every grocery store.

It was a big wine before my breakup with Debbie, and soon after that, I started seeing 1999 Chateau Souverain. It’s inevitable. Only so much wine is made and then it’s on to the next vintage. I bought as much of the 1998 as I could find, but fewer and fewer stores had it. By 2002, it was all gone in Columbus.

I went to Cincinnati to visit Scott, and he took me to a huge wine store in Kentucky called the Party Source. Holey guacamole, this place was awesome! I took my list and went down a few aisles. One was the merlot aisle. Let’s see Swanson … Pride … YES YES YES!!! It had Chateau Souverain, of course, but in the racks were 1998 bottles—four of them. I couldn’t empty the bin into my carry basket fast enough.

Early in our courtship, Laurie took me to a wine bar in the West Loop called The Tasting Room (another former favorite that closed at the end of 2013). It was a cozy place that had large comfy couches and views of the Chicago skyline in the second story lounge. On Mondays, it had half-price glasses of wine. Laurie and I always went on Mondays.

At the time, The Tasting Room was connected to a wine store that closed a few years ago (about the time that the upstairs lounge was closed on Monday nights—the fatal blow if you ask me). I had no money, but I wanted to window shop a bit.

The selection, displayed in wood boxes or on slanted wood racks, was pretty good. As we walked around, I told Laurie about a few of the various labels. When we came to the French section, I gasped and pulled down a bottle of 1995 Chateau Margaux. The price: $400. It wasn’t the price that gave me pause, it was the wine itself. I knew from my Wine Spectator days that it scored at 100—a perfect bottle of wine.

I’d seen a bottle of the 1995 Chateau Margaux before, at a little wine shop in Columbus after my breakup with Debbie, but that one was behind lock and key. This one was out in the open, and I had to hold it.

Later, I told Debbie, and she said that the next time I was there, I should buy it for her and that we’d split it. Really? Really. Unfortunately, when I went back months later, it was gone. Some other lucky soul found it, held it and—unlike me—bought it when he or she could. Win some, lose some.

After I regained gainful employment and could afford to buy wine again, I restarted my wine list, which now is on my iPhone. I bought a subscription to Wine Spectator but let it lapse to purchase Wine Spectator’s app. It’s more convenient but less conducive to list building, so I’m considering switching back. Consequently, my list isn’t as up to date as it could be, and I don’t buy as many different labels as I used to.

But I still have my favorites. Columbia Crest Grand Estates merlot is consistently solid and $10 in just about any Jewel grocery, but the 2008 vintage was particularly strong. Wine Spectator rated it a 91, and I thought it stood up even to steak, which you wouldn’t think a merlot could.

Like with the Souverain more than a decade ago, I always kept on the lookout for 2008 Columbia Crest. Unlike the Souverain, there was way more Columbia Crest out there. Even two years after the vintage had been turned over, so 2010 bottles were on stores shelves, I still was finding 2008 here or there, albeit in ever-dwindling quantities.

When the time drew close for the Dominick’s grocery chain to close at the end of 2013, I went to a store that I’d found months before had bottles of the 2008 Columbia Crest. While everyone was piling their carts full of half-priced toilet paper, I went straight to the full-price wine shelves. And there, just like I’d hoped, just like at the Party Source, I found four bottles of 2008 Columbia Crest merlot waiting to be grabbed up by me.

This time I kept the yes-yes dance to myself, however.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

No. 127 – Pleasant Valley Sunday

Performer: The Monkees
Songwriters: Gerry Goffin, Carole King
Original Release: single, Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd.
Year: 1967
Definitive Version: None.

Like Janis Ian, I learned many truths when I was 17. But when I was 6 and had the 45 of Pleasant Valley Sunday spinning on my Deccaphone suitcase record player, I learned another truth—Creature comfort goals, they only numb my soul … wait, that’s not it. Oh yeah, it’s you can’t always get what you want. Too bad that song’s not on this here list.

I had a girlfriend when I was in preschool. Her name was Leslie. She was blonde, and I was smitten. (I still could drive you past the house where she lived.) She sat next to me at my 5th birthday party—the last time I had girls at my birthday before I discovered they had cooties.

Of course, our relationship was doomed from the beginning. She was heading to elementary school in Upper Arlington; I would be on the wrong side of the tracks in Columbus public schools. Sigh.

No matter, when you’re 5, it’s just on to the next thing. Attending kindergarten in Columbus was different from preschool in UA. The biggest difference: All the kids didn’t look the same. Cranbrook wasn’t evenly mixed racially but way more mixed than UA, which is to say it was mixed at all. Most students were white, but I had African kids in my kindergarten class and Asian kids and Latin kids. That was neither cool nor scary. It just was, like a lot of things, no big deal to a 5-year-old.

What WAS a big deal, at least to this 5-year-old was Shelly. She was the prettiest girl I’d ever seen, with long brown curls. In the blink of an eye, Leslie was long forgotten.

My love for Shelly went unrequited that school year, 1969-70, probably because kindergarten was where the sexes started to divide. The boys went to play kickball; the girls to ride the carousel.

Anyway, the school year ended, and everyone went his or her own way—to first grade, to other schools. I don’t remember exactly when it happened, but one day that summer, Dad and I rode our bikes down to the school to play on the swings and slides. As was the case during that time, I took a few of my Major Matt Mason characters with me.

Do you know Major Matt Mason? For those who don’t, he was a rubber-body astronaut whose frame was made of wires so you could bend and pose his arms and legs. Major Matt Mason, his friends and all his space gear were cool enough, but the coolest thing were all the aliens in what I remember was a companion series.

I learned recently that they were actually a completely different series, called the Outer Space Men, but it was all the same to me. There was one for each planet, and I had almost all of them. I lost the brain-protruding pink alien from Uranus—my favorite—on our trip to New Jersey, and I don’t think I ever got over it. I might still have the gray robot-like alien from Pluto somewhere.

So Dad and I get to the Cranbrook playground, and who do you think also is playing at there chaperoned by her older brothers? I couldn’t believe it. Even better Shelly and I were the only kids our own age there.

I probably hadn’t said more than three words to Shelly the whole school year, but because we had been in the same kindergarten class, it was like a natural bond. Next thing I know I’m playing Matt Mason with her on the carousel.

Well, now we’re the best of friends, as though we’d been friends the whole year. Then I was walking with her to her home just a block away for some cookies. Then she gave me her phone number with the promise of more play dates. I was 6, and I knew this truly was the best of all possible worlds.

And then, like that, it was over. I can’t remember how, but in between the time that we played together on the playground to the time that first grade started a couple of weeks later, I found out that Shelly moved away, out of her house by the school, out of the neighborhood, out of my life forever.

Oh, wicked fate! I learned the truth all right at 6: The world can be a very hard and cruel place. Sigh.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

No. 128 – Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)

Performer: Marvin Gaye
Songwriters: Marvin Gaye, James Nyx
Original Release: What’s Going On
Year: 1971
Definitive Version: None.

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty exhausted after the past three (unfinished) entries. Today we’ll cover something shorter and much less consequential.

I’ve always been a video-games junkie. I was much more so when I was younger, although considering how much time I spend on Angry Birds and their many variants, I guess I still am. But all I have is my iPhone. I don’t own a newer video-game console. As I mentioned more than two years ago (good ol No. 877), my hard-core home video-gaming ended with the Super Nintendo.

But in the early Nineties, I wasted a lot of time playing Nintendo. I can’t remember whether it had been a Christmas present or a self-purchase, but soon after I took the gig at The Flint Journal, I had a Nintendo system, and I played it all the time.

Actually, it was the perfect thing to have after I started working in sports. Because I worked overnights, I needed to keep an overnight schedule on days off to maintain a regular body rhythm (and not having kids, I could do this).

Having HBO, as I did for the first time in Grand Blanc, helped. So did having a VCR, which Mom bought for me as a Christmas present in 1988. However, HBO’s programming got a little shaky after about 1. And one could watch Bull Durham only so many times.

I was done with Strat-o-Matic, so I turned to the Nintendo. I’d put on my CD player with its six-disc changer and veg out. So, when I hear this song of social protest and angst, what do I think of? Mario. Specifically Super Mario Brothers 2.

I played a lot of Tetris, too, but Super Mario 2 was my favorite for a number of reasons. It was funky—different from all the other Mario games in terms of characters—and it had no score. It was just pure puzzle quest and getting as far as you could. In many ways, it was the trickiest of the Marios to master.

I was secure enough in my masculinity that I’d play The Princess, not Mario or Luigi or—for sure—Toad. The practical reason for being The Princess became obvious almost right away, or as Scott pointed out once: The Princess has some serious hang time. When you superjumped the princess, you could clear chasms that were nigh-impossible with any other character. Really, to play anyone but The Princess was silly.

I was going to say a waste of time, but that’s what playing video games is, isn’t it? Yes, I wasted A LOT of time paying Nintendo, time that in hindsight would have been much better spent reading, writing, learning a new language, cooking, hell, visiting the Dort Highway dance establishments.

My time-wasting activity was acceptable amongst some of my peers thanks to the killer app: Blades of Steel. If you weren’t familiar with Blades of Steel, you missed out on something. It, of course, was a hockey game that could be played against the computer or—better—head to head against Bill, Dave or Robb to much merriment. (One day at work, Bill brought in a homemade videotape of he and Robb playing that included on-screen game action and reaction footage—with commentary—intercut. It was as ridiculous as it sounds.)

Blades of Steel featured a couple of hilarious features. First, it had fights. If the digital hockey players bumped each other enough, the game changed from and angled view of the ice to a one-on-one standup fight. The winner got the puck while the loser was carried off the ice to the shame of his manipulator.

Second, if you scored, the goalie threw a fit while the other team celebrated. And if you won, you skated around the ice proudly. If you beat the computer in tournament mode, where each game got more difficult, you were handed a trophy for the postgame skate.

We called it Lord Konami’s Prized Chalice (pronounced shall-EZE) in tribute to Lord Stanley’s prized shalleze, or chalice. He who paraded around The Konami Cup was to be held in esteem.

Who said playing video games was a waste?