Monday, March 31, 2014

No. 66 – Edge of the Blade

Performer: Journey
Songwriters: Steve Perry, Neal Schon, Jonathan Cain
Original Release: Frontiers
Year: 1983
Definitive Version: Live Frontiers, 1983. I haven’t been able to find the official name of the bootleg that Scott had and made a copy of for me in 1984 or ’85, because I haven’t been able to find a single recording that has all three components: Philadelphia, No More Lies and this song.

I suppose, like any young man courting a young lady, I was intimidated by Beth’s father. It’s not that he did anything in particular to make me feel that way, per se, but unlike Beth’s mom, he wasn’t warm and engaging.

That doesn’t mean he was cold. He just kept to himself and didn’t say much unless he had something important to say. Remember: This was a man who told us when it was time for me to leave by tossing a shoe down the stairs to the basement. You didn’t want to be there when that last shoe dropped.

And that was the primary thing: Mr. Mac was the enemy. He was the sheriff, and I was the miscreant prowling the henhouse. I was trying to sneak off with as much bounty as I could; he was there to prevent me from doing just that. It was a natural rivalry, and we both understood the other’s role.

When Beth and I started dating, I was very young and very immature, and the less time spent around Beth’s father, the better. That was due more to not knowing him all that well but also that I just didn’t want to be around adults much anyway. As time went by, that became less of an issue, of course.

When Beth and I would watch TV at her place Sunday afternoons, he’d be there in his recliner with us. I spent many a dinner in their dining room. One time, they even invited Scott to come over, and I told him, OK, you better be on your BEST behavior.

He was, but Mr. Mac wasn’t. He and Erin poked some fun at the dinner-prayer ritual much to Mrs. Mac’s chagrin. Scott and I looked at each other knowingly as Beth gave me the stink-eye. Hey, WE’RE behaving here.

The first time I ever really felt like a grown-up—and not just a kid pretending to be one—was because of Mr. Mac. One day after work in the summer of 1985, I went to see Beth. I knew she had been planning a shopping day with her mom and sister, but she was supposed to have been back by the time I showed up, about 5.

Mr. Mac came to the door and let me in, explaining that no one was home yet. Usually, when that happened, that was my cue to head home until I heard back from Beth, but this time, he invited me in instead.

He was downstairs working on his train layout. (I mentioned this before, but Mr. Mac’s train layout was a lot like my book—the fun was in the process and not necessarily the accomplishment. He never finished his train layout.) If I wanted, I could come down and have a beer.

What? Really? I wasn’t the brightest bulb in the box, but even I knew the significance of having the father of my girlfriend invite me to have a beer with him in his basement bar. It was a BIG deal. I readily accepted … even though I drank maybe one beer a month.

Actually, he was about the same—not exactly a big drinker. His beer of choice, which was stocked in his mini fridge downstairs (and which Beth and I never raided—never had an interest in raiding), was Grain Belt.

Now, for those of you who aren’t familiar with this brand, it was an old Minnesota label that I knew from my beer-can collecting salad days in the Seventies. I’d assumed it was long gone when I started to date Beth only to find out that—lo and behold—Mr. Mac might have been the last customer outside of the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Lord only knows where he found it in Columbus.

But now, here I was, sitting at the bar as Mr. Mac stood behind it, sipping on an ice-cold Grain Belt from his personal stash. We listened to his Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers records on a turntable that was likely to have Journey on it as soon as Beth arrived. It was the first time that we ever really had one-on-one time together.

We talked about trains and beer, work, college, whatever. Mr. Mac turned on the AC only as a last resort, so the basement was the place of refuge during the summer, and it felt good to be where it was cool.

Almost an hour went by before the women finally showed up. Beth called downstairs and was surprised to see what was up. “Daddy gave YOU one of his Grain Belts?” What? Can’t the sheriff and the miscreant break brews together? Actually, she was more than pleased to find us there together.

So was I. It was one of my favorite memories of being home during my college years that didn’t involve Beth. I no longer felt intimidation. I felt respect.

That didn’t mean I stopped prowling the henhouse, of course.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

No. 67 – Living in the U.S.A.

Performer: The Steve Miller Band
Songwriter: Steve Miller
Original Release: Sailor
Year: 1968
Definitive Version: King Biscuit Flower Hour Presents the Steve Miller Band, 2002. I love, love, LOVE this version from a 1973 show. It’s loose and jammy, much longer than the original and definitely free of the pop sheen that Miller employed to enormous success just a few years later.

Excuse me if I’ve said this before, but the worst thing about any job search is the seeming complete lack of regard that employers have for basic social graces.

From August 2005 to April 2006, I applied for 68 jobs in the Chicago area in the journalism and publishing realm and got rejection letters from 15, or slightly better than 20 percent. I probably got another dozen at least acknowledging my application via automatic reply.

Having been on the other side of the fence, I know that responding to everyone who applies for a job can be impractical. Small businesses likely don’t have the resources to handle that.

However, I also have seen that most applications are from people who haven’t even read the requirements of the job position, haven’t sent a cover letter and aren’t in any way qualified for the job. In every case, I applied for a position with a cover letter addressed to a specific person—in print as well as via the Web. (This was still early enough that most companies still wanted print applications, resumes and samples.) My letter detailed that I had looked into the position, or at least read the job post carefully.

This was a time-consuming process, and it was deflating to not even get acknowledgement of my existence, let alone the job. As I mentioned, if you’re minimally qualified for the job, but I don’t interview you, you get an email thanking you for applying but that we’re looking in another direction. It’s the least I can do.

Yes, that takes time out of my otherwise busy day, but I remember what it was like on the side of that fence. No one likes getting bad news, but I think everyone at least likes being respected enough to be acknowledged. At least I did.

Early in February 2006, I had a huge day on CareerBuilder. No fewer than five jobs were on there that I was qualified for, including one for which I also received notice through Northwestern’s placement office. I whipped together my letters and assembled my mailings over two days, sent them out … and got one rejection notice a week later.

Sigh. Fortunately, I had a lot of freelance work to keep me occupied in addition to going back to the drawing board. One thing I did to keep myself active and not get down about my lack of a job and ever-dwindling finances was go to the gym regularly. Yes, I couldn’t really afford to go. I also couldn’t afford NOT to go.

On one particularly sunny springlike day in middle March 2006—in other words, nothing like March in Chicago this year—I was driving home from the gym on Ashland when my phone rang. I’m not one to answer my phone while I drive, and I’m certainly not one to answer my phone any time when I don’t recognize the number, but during a job search, you never know who’s calling. I quickly turned onto a side street where I could park and answered the phone.

The voice on the other end said his name was Rich. I instantly recognized the name as someone to whom I’d addressed a cover letter a month ago. I applied for a job as a copy editor at a magazine that I assumed had been filled long before now. I never got a rejection notice, however.

He said that he received my resume … a month ago and said he didn’t consider me for that job (I knew that already), because he thought I was overqualified for it. That’s always nice to hear, but I need a job here.

Then he said, however, a new position opened up at the magazine, for a senior editor’s position, and it would seem that my experience was better suited to THAT job. Was I interested in that position?

Well, let me think about this here … a BETTER job, at least better-sounding, than the one for which I applied, which probably means better pay … My response in the affirmative took less time than it did for you to read that last sentence, let alone me write it. OK, would you be available to come in, say, tomorrow for an interview?

I frantically wrote down the directions and a brief job description, so I could think about how my experience applied. The job was all editing, no writing, and I was fine with that. I’d be in charge of five or six projects from cradle to grave, meaning I’d have to find and hire expert authors and maneuver copy through the editing process till it went on the page. I knew right away that it wasn’t a slam dunk. If I were up against an experienced magazine editor, I’d lose. But you can’t win if your foot isn’t in the door, and the door was open.

Fortunately, I’d had some experience with working directly with writers. Even better, I’d made printouts of articles that came to me from freelancers at The Dispatch and what they looked like in print. There was a huge difference, and it was an indication, I thought, of how I managed the process. Maybe Rich wouldn’t know what exactly my role in the process was, but the results were undeniable.

The job was in Deerfield, where my journalism career nearly ended before it began 20 years ago. When I arrived for the interview, I knew I made a good first impression when I immediately acknowledged the various photos Rich had in his office of various Indy 500 drivers in their cars. They were circa 1985. Heck, for all I knew, I was at the track that same day.

The interview ran long, but only the duration was a struggle. I felt confident. Of course, I felt confident at an interview I had in February only to flush out of the job when my writing test went poorly due to problems out of my control.

We talked about the job, my experience and what I’d been doing for the past three years. (On my resume, I noted my freelance work and my job as official scorer for the Columbus Clippers, 2004-2005.) Rich laid out the work involved, the hours and, finally, the pay. It was low Forties, which was less than what I made at The Dispatch but way more than what I’d made since. At the end, Rich said he had another person to interview, and he’d get back to me next week.

Then … nothing. By the following weekend, I thought I’d had my answer, but I wasn’t going to let Rich get away with a pocket veto. I interviewed, so I wasn’t being pushy by calling and asking what was up. When I did on Monday, Rich was apologetic. Yes, I still was under consideration, but he hadn’t made a decision. (What I know now is that the magazine was right on deadline.)

I wasn’t about to just sit around waiting, however. I went back to the drawing board, again, and sent out a few more resumes. I was feeling confident. This had been my second interview in two months. Things were happening.

The next week, the first week in April, I got a call from Rich. He still had one more person he wanted to interview, but I still was under consideration. He should know something the next week.

I knew then that the job was mine. Laurie, who is very superstitious about job offers (you never say ANYTHING until you have the gig) didn’t want me to jinx it, but I approached it logically. I’d interviewed three weeks ago. If the job were gone, I would’ve heard by now, but that Rich kept interviewing people yet kept telling me I remained in the running meant I still was the best candidate. Someone had to beat me out, and no one had.

And no one did. The next week Rich called on a Tuesday and offered me the job, for $47,000 based on my experience. I already decided that if offered, I’d take it regardless of the salary, so to actually get a little more than I was expecting was a nice surprise.

One thing, Rich said, he wanted me to start tomorrow. What? I couldn’t; I already was committed to work the Wednesday and Thursday at AM News, and I still had one more story to write for Chicago Home & Garden. I wanted to start Monday, so I could finish up my other projects, but Rich wanted me to start as soon as possible.

Well, I wasn’t about to queer the deal over the start date. Somehow I’ll just figure it out, but I wondered: What the heck was I getting myself into? Little did I know …

Saturday, March 29, 2014

No. 68 – Right in Two

Performer: Tool
Songwriters: Maynard James Keenan, Adam Jones, Danny Carey, Justin Chancellor
Original Release: 10,000 Days
Year: 2006
Definitive Version: None.

The perfect musical vortex was October 1993 when Vs. by Pearl Jam and Counterparts by Rush came out on the same day. How could it be better? Well, how about a new album by Pearl Jam the same day as a new album by Tool?

That’s precisely what happened in May 2006, of course, and it was a bigger deal for several reasons: First, it was the first album of new music by either band since Pearl Jam released Riot Act way back in 2002. (I didn’t count Lost Dogs, Pearl Jam’s outtakes compilation in 2003.)

Second, if you can believe this, I might have been anticipating Tool’s album in 2006 even more than I had been Vs. in 1993. The anticipation wasn’t as intense, because after awhile, I felt that, well, Tool will release their new album when they’re ready (kind of like how I feel now). But I loved Lateralis, the 2001 release, and I was eagerly awaiting any new Tool music.

Third, and most important, it marked the first time in three years I could buy music with financial impunity. In fact, Pearl Jam and 10,000 Days were the first albums I’d bought in two years.

When I left for Cleveland in April 2003, I had $38,000 in the bank, including my share of the house and the gift Debbie gave me (as recompense for the engagement ring, as I mentioned). That was all I had when I, in effect, jumped out of an airplane without a parachute. I figured I had almost two years before I either had to get a job or land with a loud splat.

I nursed my savings as best I could, and I added to it a bit over time. OK, it was more I offset my spending, thanks to the Clippers gigs and a few Carried Away reviews for The Dispatch when I was around. I was able to stretch another year out of my savings, but by February 2006, I was down to a shade above $2,000. The book wasn’t finished, and the ground was coming up fast.

I then got two large breaks with freelance work—story to come later—that flattened out my drop. Then, when a full-time gig came through in April, I curved away from the ground. It wasn’t as much as I made at The Dispatch (although it was reasonably close), but it was enough that I knew based on carefully tracking my expenses over the past three years, that it was going to be sufficient. I was going to survive my financial freefall.

My first real paycheck in more than three years came at the end of April 2006. The next weekend, just before the release of Pearl Jam and 10,000 Days, Laurie and I went out to dinner with Steven and Michael. We hiked to a new upscale Mexican place in Andersonville called Ole Ole.

We had a great time, dining on ceviche and fajitas (in my case). It was excellent, although by the third and final time Laurie and I were there, Ole Ole had deteriorated significantly. (It’s been closed at least five years.)

What was more significant though was the feeling I had going through the menu. Being in Chicago, going out with Laurie as much as we did, I always was looking carefully at the prices on the menu. I was hyperaware of what everything cost, because I had only so much money. Then, when I’d enter my expenses into my spreadsheet later, I’d chastise myself for spending more than I should.

But that night at Ole Ole, I realized that I no longer cared about the prices. They were what they were, and I still entered them into my spreadsheet later (which I keep to this day), but I no longer worried about how much it was. I had it covered.

That was the first time I’d been able to do that at a restaurant—to order another round of drinks or get an appetizer—without any concern about how much it cost in five years. I could buy music again; I could buy wine again. I’d made it.

Friday, March 28, 2014

No. 69 – Cabo Wabo

Performer: Van Halen
Songwriters: Eddie Van Halen, Alex Van Halen, Michael Anthony, Sammy Hagar
Original Release: OU812
Year: 1988
Definitive Version: The studio version.

Cabo Wabo, paradoxically, is the sound of Canada, because it was THE song of me and Scott’s second trip there, in 1992. Toronto itself was the draw when we went back. We wanted to really explore it, which is why we spent a week. However, the Blue Jays still were a large part of the draw. This was back when they were at the top of the baseball world, of course, and SkyDome sold out every game. Still, I was able to secure ducats for a game that week against the Royals.

When the day came, we headed downtown from our hotel in Mississauga, found parking somewhere in the vicinity of the stadium and went in. I knew our seats weren’t going to be that good, but even Bob Uecker had better seats than we did. We weren’t in the last row of the stadium or even our section, so technically there were worse seats, but we’re talking by degrees here.

Our seats were in the second deck in dead center field and underneath, well, everything. It was almost as though someone put up bleacher seats on the concrete just to cram more people inside. Our view was so restricted it appeared we were watching the game on TV but without the zoom.

Oh well, we’re there, eating $5 McDonald’s hot dogs (a lot back in those days) and drinking Labatt’s. The Blue Jays were Scott’s favorite team—after our 1991 trip—so he was glad just to be there. It could’ve been worse.

And as a reminder of that … as our section filled in, a couple guys came down our row and said to us, hey, those are our seats, as though anyone would interlope the worst seats in the house. No, their our seats. Let me see your ticket. Let me see yours. Section 550, row 13, seats 17-18. Huh? I pulled out mine. Yep, right here: Section 550, row 13, seats 17-18 … Uhhh, those are for TOMORROW NIGHT’S game.

You know in The Sting when Paul Newman’s character takes down Robert Shaw’s in the classic poker scene and the camera zooms in on the four jacks that had been four threes just moments before? Well, that’s exactly what happened at that Blue Jays game: My eyes zoomed in on the ticket to see, yes, Scott and I came to the wrong game.

It might have been the most hilariously dumb thing I’ve ever done. I apologized profusely, but as Scott and I trudged out, I realized I wasn’t the only one who pulled a big boner. The ticket-taker, who tore our tickets, didn’t notice the date of our tickets either.

This was a problem, because now we were holding stubs for tomorrow night’s game. We showed the ticket taker the tickets, that they were for the next day. He apologized and told us to go to the ticket office and explain what happened. Seeing that the tickets were in fact for a game not yet played and not just some old stubs that a couple dumb Americans were trying to use to scam their way inside, they issued us new tickets.

Well, what do you want to do now? How about some tennis? Scott and I had played a little the previous weekend at Torch Lake and had so much fun, we decided to take our rackets to play in Toronto. So we drove to a complex close to our hotel that allowed the public to rent courts for a fee.

We had a bit of a wait—it was a great summer night after all—but we finally took the court about 10, or about the time a huge thunderstorm was about to come barreling through the city. We got in only a single set before we had to split ahead of the rain.

The next day was given to some sight-seeing before the game. We started off at Ontario Place, which was a cool mix of science museum and kids theme park. There was a massive Lego room, and I had to drag Scott out of there, lest he spend the day trying to build a full-size replica of the space shuttle.

That night, our seats for the game were the same, but this time, no one came to kick us out. The Royals won a laugher, and by the sixth inning, Scott and I moved to the third-base side where we had a much better view of field and the stadium itself.

The day after that, we went to Marilyn Bell Park by Lake Ontario. The idea was to spend the early afternoon before our second attempt to watch a Blue Jays game (ahem) doing activities at “Lakeside Park,” in honor of the Rush song. It wasn’t the real Lakeside Park, of course, but it served its purpose well enough. We finished our tennis match on an open court, threw the Aerobie around and made massive bubbles while enjoying a perfect sunny day.

From there, we headed to Exhibition Place, the site of the former baseball and football stadium, Exhibition Stadium, as well as the site of the former Toronto Grand Prix (still active at the time). Scott and I posed at the start/finish line, which was left there all year. Exhibition Place was close to a Molson Brewery, but we decided we didn’t have the time to take the tour.

We did tour the Hockey Hall of Fame, however, before it moved to its fancy new digs. I’d love to tell you how thrilling it was to make it to the third of the Big Four halls of fame (behind football and baseball), but I can assure you it wasn’t.

The hockey hall at the time was in a building about the size of a good-size boiler room and with all the charm, which is to say none. The coolest thing I remember about it was seeing the Avco Cup, the trophy handed out at the end of the old World Hockey Association season. (All the other trophies were out on tour.)

For our final night, Scott and I headed back to Yonge Street for a little partying, but the first two places we went to had the wrong vibe. We noticed we were close to Joey’s. Why not just go back there? I didn’t have to twist Scott’s arm too much.

Joey’s still had the Olympics on TV, but it was busier than when we went the first time. We didn’t see Joey this time, but Magic Merrill was behind the bar, serving ‘em tall and cold, just the way we like it. She greeted us warmly and asked how our week had gone, and we said it had been a great time. Round II coming right up, eh?

We did the whole deal all over again—wings, Labatt’s and conversation with Merrill. This time, however, a group of older gentlemen were in the process of tying one on at the bar—a “bunch of drunken Canucks” we called them later. When they found out we were Americans, the conversation quickly turned to politics.

Who’s youse guys votin’ for, eh? OK, so they weren’t quite Bob & Doug’s relatives, but it was close. Scott and I said Clinton, and the closest one to us was apoplectic.

Naw, you can’t vote for Clinton. You gotta vote for Bush. You need someone who’s strong on defense. We said it was time to focus inward, on the economy, and Clinton was better suited for that. Nawww, you gotta vote for Bush.

It never got belligerent, but it provided an interesting perspective—an outsider’s. They wanted Bush because, well, their economy was solid, their social problems minimal, so they looked to us for protection, and Bush seemed like the better choice to protect Canada’s interests. From a Canadian perspective, Bush was the better choice. Finally, we said we’d think about it. (We both voted for Clinton.)

And that was the end of our glorious Toronto trip. We agreed as we headed back to Michigan that we needed to do this again next year, but, how about somewhere else? Any ideas? How about Seattle? Love it; let’s do it.

However, it wasn’t quite the end of our adventures. I’ve mentioned about being in the world’s largest traffic jam leaving various outdoor amphitheaters. Well, Scott and I WERE in the world’s largest traffic jam coming home from Toronto in 1992. Traffic was backed up at the Blue Water Bridge at Sarnia, and it took us—I’m not exaggerating—more than two hours to go three kilometers (about two miles).

Oh well. I suppose it could be worse. I mean, it’s not as though we were locked out of our own country or anything.