Saturday, May 31, 2014

No. 5 – Guinnevere

Performer: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Songwriter: David Crosby
Original Release: Crosby, Stills & Nash (Crosby, Stills & Nash)
Year: 1969
Definitive Version: CSNY2K, Portland 2-2-00, 2000. Actually, probably any version from this tour would suffice.

If I could have written any song on this here list, I would choose this one without hesitation. It’s absolutely perfect, not a single false note or lyric in it.

So why is it not No. 1? I mean, how do you top perfection? Well, every song above Guinnevere eclipses 15 minutes. In fact, Guinnevere is the only song in the top 19 that falls below five minutes in length. The way I see it, 22 minutes of perfection out of 25 total, beats 4 minutes of 100 percent perfection. Any further complaints, and I’d like to remind you of the rules stated on this here blog nearly three years ago: my house, my rules.

Guinnevere is another of those songs that the more I hear it, the more I like it. The point of real illumination was the CSN box set. When I heard that version of Guinnevere, which is more or less a Crosby solo demo, I was surprised that it was an unplugged version of Guinnevere. Of course, the studio version on Crosby, Stills & Nash isn’t exactly overproduced, but I loved the stripped-down version right away.

Then came the CSNY2K version, which is nothing short of stunning. I’d compare it to an ice crystal. It would break apart if you gripped it too tightly, yet somehow Crosby, Nash and Crosby’s 12-string hold it together.

On the CSN box set liner notes, Crosby wrote that people ask him all the time who was Guinnevere—who was the inspiration behind the song. Crosby’s answer was no one; it was an amalgamation of people he’d known up to that point. I’m not saying I disbelieve him, because, well … he wrote the song, so he should know, but I have to think one person stood out more than any other, and perhaps he just didn’t want to say.

Debbie wasn’t a big fan of this song, although she knew I was. She didn’t like it, because she knew it meant more to me than it did her and—more important—that she wasn’t my Guinnevere.

Debbie always thought Beth was Guinnevere. Yes, Beth hath green eyes (sort of) and golden hair (more or less), but I never caught her drawing pentagrams on the wall when she thought that no one was watching at all. Regardless, Debbie was dead wrong.

To me, Guinnevere is the unobtainable ideal, the embodiment of the perfect love. Well, anyone who has been in love with another person knows that the only perfect love is one that’s unrequited, because a person’s faults lay undiscovered.

My love of Beth was mostly definitely requited, but, even when I was most in love with her, even before we met, it never approached the ideal. The truth is Beth never was Guinnevere.

Jan Nolte was Guinnevere.

To this day, I remember the first time I saw her. It wasn’t in the warm wind down by the bay. Instead, it was in our eighth-grade Life Science class at Hastings. I even want to say it was in Room 108. The teacher, Mr. Hord, whom I loved, had Jan come to the front of the class to demonstrate some pattern of planetary movement in the solar system.

I’d never noticed Jan before for some reason, despite her being a cheerleader. That day she wore green cordouroy pants and a red, green and blue stripe cow-neck top, which clung to the impressive curves of her budding womanhood. Her reddish-blonde hair was cut in the Dorothy Hamill style that was de rigueur in Upper Arlington, and her blue eyes pierced my heart.

I remained smitten throughout junior high and high school. I had several classes with Jan throughout the years, and she knew who I was, but, of course, I never could bring myself to talk to her. I mean, how do you talk to Guinnevere? I was too busy gasping and clutching my heart when she passed by. I had no songs with which to woo her, even the one written by David Crosby that I wished I wrote. So I said nothing, except the occasional shy greeting.

My inability to break the silence led to something I wish I could roll back and redo but, of course, can’t. Sherman, set the way-back machine to October 1981.

I had parked that day in the student lot at UA and headed home quickly after school to be at Food World for the start of my 4-10 shift. I just started there and had no interest in punching my time card late. I had to be on time.

As I drove along Brandon Road, I saw Jan walking by herself on the sidewalk. She saw me and waved. I waved back and … KEPT DRIVING!

There was no need for later self-reproachment; I understood even as it happened the extent of my boneheadedness. In the back of my mind, I knew Jan was walking to Kingsdale, just a block away, for her job, and I had to hustle to get to work, but obviously I should have stopped to ask whether she wanted a ride.

If she said no, no harm done. If she said yes, even if it was just one more block to Kingsdale, a door would’ve opened. Where that door would’ve led, I’ll never know.

Of course, one possibility is that I would have discovered Jan’s faults and, thus, that she wasn’t really Guinnevere after all.

Friday, May 30, 2014

No. 6 – Mercy Street

Performer: Peter Gabriel
Songwriter: Peter Gabriel
Original Release: So
Year: 1986
Definitive Version: SW Live EP, 1994. Accept no substitutes. I mean it, even though a recording of the exact same performance appears on the Live at Athens discs in the remastered and expanded So that came out in 2012. For reasons that are unknown, the mix to Mercy Street on Live at Athens was futzed around with, which resulted in losing some of PG’s haunting vocals in the extended coda—the very thing that makes this version so incredible.

Much like The Who’s performance of Tommy at Woodstock, seeing this particular performance of Mercy Street is a whole different ballgame from merely hearing the recording, as great as it is. Most of the performance, PG is kneeling or lying on stage, almost completely obscured by Vari-Lites that hover just above him as he goes deep into channeling the tortured specter of Anne Sexton. All the while, this incredible music is swirling about him.

It’s a riveting performance. Seeing it for the first time on the PoV video, which I rented from my video store in Grand Blanc, launched this song into my personal stratosphere, from where it hasn’t come down. (Look for the clip of PG in full Genesis shaman mode.)

When I learned that Laurie was into Peter Gabriel, I had to include this particular version on the first tape of tunes I made for her. I was all but certain she never heard it before. I gave her the tape on New Year’s Day 2005 when we had our Christmas gift exchange, which followed a rather tumultuous night before ringing in the new year.

The plan, at Laurie’s initiative, was for dinner at another Indian restaurant that she wanted to introduce me to and then rock in the new year with Rockin’ Billy and the Wild Coyotes at the California Clipper. I didn’t love rockabilly, but I loved Laurie, so I was fine with whatever she had in mind.

However, I had a plan of my own. I DID love Laurie. As I mentioned (good ol’ No. 236), I knew it when I saw pictures of her at Jin and Paul’s wedding a week before. And I was going to tell her what I thought and what I felt before the clock struck midnight that night.

It didn’t matter whether she felt the same. I wasn’t going to do it to try and garner some response or action. I wasn’t going to say it to try and change her mind about me. All that mattered was I felt it, so I was going to say it. Heck, for all I knew, she might read my declaration as “moving too fast,” and we might never see each other again afterward as a result. I could live with that.

So we spent the entire New Year’s Eve day with that in the back of my head. In what had been my favorite year up to that point, the final day of 2004 would be a glorious one, cementing my rebirth.

It was a sunny day, and the weather was positively balmy for December. Laurie, being a sun lover, said, let’s get out of the house and take a walk. Sounds good to me.

It was close to 2 when we finally headed out. We started down Damen Avenue. Laurie wanted to hike down Damen, because it had a bunch of cool antique stores that she wanted to check out as we walked.

We both were hungry, so we stopped along the way at a Thai place that Laurie had been by dozens of times but had never tried, which was funny considering how close to her apartment it was and how much she professed a love of Thai. The name of the place was Aroy Thai, and it was quite good. (In fact, it now is our go-to neighborhood Thai.)

We walked down Damen until we hit Addison. Laurie wanted to head to the lake at some point, and I thought going past Wrigley Field to get there was as good as any route. Besides, Addison had stores that catered a bit to my interests as well as Laurie’s.

The lake had a lot of activity for a late December day. Apparently everyone else was doing what we were—getting out to enjoy the day before going off to do whatever it was they would do to celebrate the new year.

We hiked along the lake, hand in hand, as we had most of the previous walk. The sun began to set behind the skyscrapers that lined the streets just west of the lake shore, and it was getting dark by the time we made it to Foster to complete the huge square.

We took a massive walk that day. When I figured it all out later based on Chicago’s grid geography, I calculated that our walk had to have been at least five miles, perhaps six.

Then it was time to start our formal (official) New Year’s Eve. Laurie drove us to the area I now dub Indian Village. Unlike Tiffin, the first Indian restaurant I went to with Laurie (good ol’ No. 124), Hema’s Kitchen—Laurie’s choice—was a hole in the wall off the main drag on Devon. It also was BYOB, so we had to stop at a nearby liquor store to buy our beer.

As much as I enjoyed Tiffin, Hema’s was my kind of place. It was more informal, like being in somebody’s home, and the food was excellent. Even better, I didn’t gorge myself to the point of nearly bursting like I had at Tiffin, so the evening was off to a great start.

We headed out to the Clipper sometime around 9. The Clipper is close to where Laurie’s friends Ann and Barry lived at the time, and they were having a party that night that would become an after party for us. But it was in kind of a rough neighborhood, Laurie said. I didn’t care. I’d driven through the Robert Taylor Homes back at night back in the day. It can’t be worse than that.

We parked about a block or two from the Clipper, and although the neighborhood was more run down than Laurie’s, it didn’t seem that bad. Besides a bunch of people were out on the street, heading, like us, to the Clipper.

The bouncer greet us at the door. He wore a blue mohair full-length coat that seemed to have been skinned off the back of Sully from Monsters Inc. He had a huge blonde Mohawk haircut and funky sunglasses, which completed the awesome surfer-biker look.

The place was pretty crowded by the time we got there, so all the tables and seats were taken. We found a spot on the windowsill just inside the front door and made that our hangout, which made it a good location for passing-by teens to make smoochy faces at Laurie and me whenever we hugged on each other. (I never saw them, but I doubt I would’ve cared.)

Wild Billy hit the stage sometime after 10, and he was as advertised. Again, any music in the right venue can sound good, and rockabilly in the Clipper that night was just the right thing even though it isn’t my preferred brand of rock. We danced a bit and sat a bit. Mostly we just talked and held each other close. I felt as though what had been on my mind all day—all weekend, really—wouldn’t go over badly. What was important to me was that I wouldn’t be afraid to say it.

Finally, it was getting close to midnight. Wild Billy finished whatever song he played, and the final minutes to the year began to tick away. The crew at the Clipper passed out complimentary flutes of (cheap) bubbly as well as leftover party favors. (Laurie and I grabbed hats when we arrived.) One minute … Wild Billy announced. It was time.

I turned to Laurie and said to her that I was so glad to be with her here on this night. She smiled. Then I said: “Listen, I don’t know the future, and I don’t where any of this is heading, but I know this, absolutely: I love you.”

All of the air seemed to get sucked out of the room as Laurie’s eyes fluttered a bit. She gasped, in no way expecting that what I was about to say was what I ended up saying. I didn’t want her to say anything she didn’t feel, and I certainly didn’t want to her to repeat what I had said just because I said it. She said nothing, which was the right call. Instead she just gave me a big hug and a kiss.

The final seconds were dutifully counted down, and Laurie and I kissed to begin 2005. Wild Billy and his band launched into a bluesy Old Land Syne that segued into a deliriously dreamy version of Amazing Grace. I never cared for that song, but that night, in that moment, Wild Billy’s version was almost as good as PG’s performance of Mercy Street had been 17 years before.

We were looking into each other’s eyes, dancing slowly, and I felt the love I had for Laurie reflected back even though it went unsaid. It was a love I hadn’t felt in years. Yes, 2004 was a Hell of a year.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

No. 7 – Almost Cut My Hair

Performer: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Songwriter: David Crosby
Original Release: Deja Vu
Year: 1970
Definitive Version: CSNY2K, Portland 2-2-00, 2000. Actually, there’s really no such thing as a bad version of Almost Cut My Hair, as far as I can tell. I also would advocate for the version from CSNY’s Wembley Stadium show, 1974, as well as the full version of the studio recording, which showed up on the CSN box set, 1991.

I always liked the original version of this song and have visions of sorting baseball cards in the basement at Darcann Drive with this song playing, similar to that of Carry On, as I mentioned (good ol’ No. 153). After Scott got the CSN box set, I learned conclusively something I always suspected about the cut on Déjà Vu—it was edited. The CSN box set has the unedited version—all eight-plus minutes of it. It’s definitely the same version.

I love how at the start of that recording you hear Crosby saying softly, I want to slow it down a bit this time. Neil’s lumbering guitar cranks up at the pace of a glacier before Crosby stops the proceedings and says more audibly: “Well OK not QUITE THAT slow. Somewhere between that and the last one.” Whereupon they blaze into the version that we all know and love today.

The version from the Portland show took my love of Almost Cut My Hair up another notch because of the blazing guitar work by Neil and Stills. A few years ago, I found the version from what often is widely derided an abysmal Wembley show. Whatever problems existed with that show weren’t evident on this particular song. They just let it rip.

Two things distress a man when they start to go south on him—his Special Purpose and his hair. I’ve had issues of the urinary nature with the former. However, I’m pretty fortunate regarding the latter. As I approach 50—less than a week to go—I still have mostly a full head of hair with little gray in it.

I always was pretty conservative with my hair. My styles fit my age—buzzcut when I was a boy, longer and unwashed as I grew into my teen years, short and neat when I realized that long, unwashed hair doesn’t attract Upper Arlington girls. I parted my hair in the middle, as was the style, from 1979 to 1984.

At Wabash, I decided to change things up a bit and drove Beth nuts when I told her I’d changed my hair, something radical. She thought I permed it, but when I got home, she saw I’d just moved the part to the right side, where I seem to have a natural part and used to part it when I was a boy.

I kept my hair like that, more or less, for the next quarter-century. In the early Nineties, I Iet it grow a bit long in the back, not like a Billy Ray Cyrus mullet but more like Crockett in the fourth season of Miami Vice. I cut it in 1996 for Scott’s wedding—to his surprise—and then didn’t change it at all for another decade.

Laurie liked longer hair, so I started letting it grow out more before I’d get it cut, each time a bit longer than before. Finally, at one point in 2009, it reached the point where I could pull it back into a ponytail. Laurie loved it.

I made my ponytail debut at a reunion party for friends of The Posse who moved to Texas years before I came along. Everyone gave my new look a thumb’s up—particularly the hottest females of the crew. OK, that works for me.

So I haven’t cut my hair in five years. From time to time, when it’s gotten kinda long, Laurie trimmed it a bit, but that’s it.

During that time, I learned what any woman will tell you: Long hair can be a pain in the butt. It always gets in your face on a windy day or in your month while you sleep. I’ve grown tired of it, and I’m not sure I want to look like an aged hippy, so after my 50th birthday, I’m going to cut my hair. Even Laurie agrees it’s time.

With that in mind, I’ve let my hair go the past few months, without any trims, because when I want to donate it to a charity that makes wigs for cancer patients. However, Locks of Love requires at least 10 inches of hair length, and I’m at about 8. So I might keep my ponytail a bit longer than I expected, because I want it to go for a good cause.

That said, I’m looking forward to that first day I show up at work after I cut my hair. Everyone will think I did it for job interviews.

Actually, in what should come as no surprise given yesterday’s entry (good ol’ No. 8), I’d love for them to think that. Three years of distance from the time I spent all my hard-earned work currency hasn’t made things any better. Instead, I have become increasingly inconsequential, to the point where I wonder whether my presence around the office is even welcome any more.

I already was excluded from work on the website. The next thing to go was inclusion from job interviews. When we sought candidates for the new senior editor position that my June 2011 outburst created, I wasn’t included in the interview process.

Making matters worse, the editor applied the same scrutiny to the hire that he did with his articles and Web articles. It was more important to have a warm body fill the space than find someone good, so we hired the fourth choice of four candidates after the first three turned him down. I would have advocated going back to the job-candidate well, but my input wasn’t requested.

That hire worked out about as well as might be expected, and after six months of absolutely brutal work that I had to clean up, we were looking for another senior editor. This time I was involved, but the editor hired the candidate about whom I raised a major red flag instead of the person I thought we should hire. This senior editor was fired after six months of even worse work.

The crap tide finally ended after I suggested we promote our associate editor—whose hire I WAS involved in, back in 2010—who had been with us for three years. That decision has worked out thus far.

That changed nothing. Since then, we’ve hired two associate editors in the past year—the first one left one step ahead of the firing squad. Not only was I not involved in the process, I wasn’t even informed ahead of time. I found out both times we had a new associate editor at the same time as everyone else in the office.

Also, it used to be that whenever projects were handed out, the editor would call me into his office, where we’d discuss who should get what, coming to a mutual understanding that was best for the magazine. Now it’s just an email—here are the assignments, here’s who should get them. I’m strictly on a need-to-know basis, and, apparently, I don’t need to know anything.

Oh yeah, and when the editor finally handed off oversight of the online associate editor, which he did a year ago, it wasn’t to me, but to a senior editor. That made official what seemed clear to me back in 2011: I’m managing editor of the magazine, period.

Well, rapidly approaching 50-year-old me has handled this situation a lot differently (read: more maturely) than, say, 34-year-old me would have. I’ve kept my mouth shut and kept doing my job, increasingly limited though it may be, to the best of my ability. But even soon-to-be-50-year-old me recognizes that it’s time to move on.

I’ve looked at my 50th birthday as a time of great change—cutting my hair, sure, but also preparing myself for what’s left of my life. One of the things that will happen sooner rather than later is a new job.

It won’t happen right away. I was at The Dispatch for eight years, nine months. I hated most of my time there, and The Dispatch can’t be the job I hold the longest. Unless I’m shown the door—and, honestly, given my salary and increasing irrelevance, such a move wouldn’t surprise me—I’m staying where I am till at least February 2015 when I’ll surpass my Dispatch tenure. After that, all bets are off.

So, I have eight months—10 if I stay through my ninth anniversary—to figure out what I want to do next. I have a couple ideas, and they involve a career change. I slowly have reached the conclusion that my current job in all likelihood will be the last full-time job I have in journalism. Simply put, I make too much money, and publications aren’t interested in paying for quality any more. I’m a dinosaur marching off into the desert to the strains of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

But at least my hair still looks good.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

No. 8 – No Quarter

Performer: Led Zeppelin
Songwriters: John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page, Robert Plant
Original Release: Houses of the Holy
Year: 1973
Definitive Version: The Song Remains the Same, 1976. The versions from the re-issued and expanded Song Remains the Same, 2007; Destroyer, 1977; and No Quarter by Page & Plant, 1994; deserve special mention. It’s the mark of an extraordinary song that it generates this many outstanding versions.

I guess I chose the original Song Remains the Same version over the re-issue, because it’s uncut and therefore longer. I don’t know why Zeppelin decided to splice two versions for the movie in the first place. (They released the movie amalgamation on the re-issue, of course, to synch up with the film.)

For a long time, I thought Page’s solo in the original version was my favorite guitar solo of all time—bold, brilliant and clean, not a false note in it. I don’t know whether I still would put it No. 1 ahead of, say, Jimi Hendrix’s in Stone Free (good ol’ No. 34), but it has to be in the discussion.

I’ve been at my magazine for eight years. As I mentioned (good ol’ No. 12), the first four years were great—a completely different work environment from anything I’d experienced.

Things started to change in 2010. That year, we hired a copy editor who simply didn’t work out. The woman we hired was a seasoned vet—a little too seasoned. I agreed with the hire at the time, but I also thought a younger candidate might work out better, given the workload. A younger candidate also would be more trainable.

That sentiment was borne out, because the copy editor and I frequently butted heads. A copy editor shouldn’t be afraid to take on superiors, because the job—and I know, because I did for so long—is to be perfect. Any errors ultimately fall on the copy editor’s shoulders, so a good one tends to be a bit of a perfectionist. However, our copy editor fought me on EVERY thing, including issues that clearly were a matter of subjective preference.

That was unpleasant enough, but the REAL problem was that she missed important things—misspellings, punctuation, issues of style—that she SHOULD have caught while she was too busy fighting me over my preference in wording. She also messed up work flow by getting confused about file slugs and working on older documents after revision.

Worse, she kept doing this after I repeatedly pointed out these problems to her. It’s one thing to battle me on small items of inconsequence while missing larger items, but the surest way to incur my wrath is to act as though my instructions are being ignored.

The problem reached the point where the editor took me out to lunch to talk about it one day, because the copy editor had begun to go into his office and complain about me behind my back. Although I was concerned given my ancient work history, the editor made me understand right away that he didn’t believe I was the problem; she was.

While all this was going on, I oversaw a monster project that went badly. When I wasn’t battling my copy editor, I fought the turbulence of this project—all while trying to bring the magazine itself in for a landing on time.

The pressure of all that was too much, and it led me to do something I’d never done before—pull back. When it came time to parcel out assignments for the 2011 schedule, I begged out of the toughest ones. I couldn’t do it any more, I told my boss, now that he had turned over oversight of the magazine departments to me. Work was killing me.

That wasn’t a problem with my boss, but I felt guilty. I wasn’t taking care of the people below me, but … I had to do it. One can be pushed only so far, and I’d about reached my breaking point.

That happened in June 2011. In February of that year, I was put in charge of hiring a new copy editor after the previous one was mercifully put out of our misery. Candidates would be directed to me. I’d handle all communication and the first round of interviews. It was a huge responsibility and time-consuming, but I landed a great candidate. A woman who had been a copy editor at The Wall Street Journal decided to get back into the game after a few years off to raise a family. (She’s been with us ever since, validated my selection.)

However, that still was a stressful time for me, because that also was when Mom entered the final phase of her illness and, thus, life. In fact, our new copy editor started while I was in Columbus, the day after Mom died.

At my review that year in the spring, I told the editor that even though I’d given up the toughest assignments, I still was at my limit. Anything else you give me, I said, you have to take something away first. He promised he would.

In June, he called everyone in editorial into his office. The magazine’s website was finally scheduled to launch after a two-year delay in August, and the publisher wanted fresh copy online to usher in the launch. One problem: The person hired to be the online associate editor was swamped with handling the launch of the website. She couldn’t do the job for which she had been hired, so everyone in editorial had to take up the slack.

I was livid. After everyone else left, I asked the editor, what work are you going to take from me so I can do this other person’s job for her?

In retrospect, I should have just done the story and shut up, but I felt betrayed after he promised I would be given no more work without taking away something first. We talked, and he assured me I didn’t have to do the story I was assigned.

He also said he had to tell the publisher what occurred. I didn’t think that was necessary—this was just between us—but he wanted to use my outburst as impetus to get a fourth senior editor. This senior editor would handle projects in-house as well as take away my final magazine project, so I could handle only the duties of a managing editor.

When I left his office, I felt OK. I did want to be rid of my one project, because I knew the website would create more work for me as it is.

Unfortunately, my refusal was a huge turning point. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it turned out that in that one action, I’d lost my boss’s trust. Consequently, he began to shut me out.

This became clear when the website launched in August 2011, and I was given no responsibility in anything that went online. When we hired a new associate editor for online stories, I wasn’t involved in the interviewing process. That didn’t bother me, because I wasn’t involved in hiring her predecessor either, but I also wasn’t involved with her training or editing her copy.

This seemed at odds with what the editor said to me one day when he noted that my out-of-office message said I was the managing editor of the magazine. He said I’m managing editor of the whole company, website included.

The bigger problem was that her copy in no way matched the quality of the magazine. The editor said he was OK with that being the case. He was more interested in having SOMETHING online, even if it were superficial, rather than continuing the level of content we provided in the magazine.

I thought that was a mistake. Our brand is our reputation. If we aren’t providing the best material on behalf of the reader, that affects our credibility. Plus, it wouldn’t take much more effort to provide that, even in a brief. He disagreed and said he was fine with the quality level. That’s his call, of course, but I didn’t have to like it.

More distressing, I learned that the two-standard approach to quality ALSO pertained to the magazine. The editor handled, for reasons I can’t recall, a project that related to food preservation. The feature article passed through my office—as everything that went into the magazine had done for the past year—and I was shocked by how bad it was. An article in this condition never would fly if it came from a senior editor.

So I did my job and marked it up as I would any other article—without bias or insult. The editor responded with a terse reply that he was accepting the article as is and then took me out of the loop on proofing the article … and then all subsequent articles that came out of his office.

If I had been shocked by how bad the article was, you can imagine my reaction now. How could I continue to apply demanding standards on articles from the senior editors and associate editor when those same standards didn’t apply uniformly? Because, although it never was said in so many words, my job was to do what I was told.

Then I realized the truth: All of the political capital I’d carefully accrued over the previous five years of hard work—working late, working weekends, working on vacation—burned up that one fateful day In June 2011. Of course, if all my political capital burned up that easily, the obvious conclusion is it couldn’t have been worth much to begin with.

(To be continued, again)