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Saturday, May 14, 2016

Wes Montgomery and Three Overmatched Strangers Play Four on Six

Wes always smiles. He was one of the most genial musicians ever. He had a challenging life, so he always seemed glad to be there, no matter where there was. It beat his factory job, and he knew it.

No one springs from Zeus' head without being an amalgamation of things that came before. That being said, Wes Montgomery came as close to inventing an original method of playing the guitar as anyone I can think of. It's the sort of thing that's born of endless work in obscurity for long periods. Wes used to play the guitar after he got home from his blue-collar job, and he didn't want to wake his wife and many kids. He used his thumb to gently strike the strings instead of a plectrum. It eventually led to half of his unusual sound.

The rest of it was this triptych soloing method. It was also born of playing alone for long periods. First comes a melody. Then he doubles it. Then he plays it passing through block chords. When you hear it, you think, "That's Wes Montgomery, or someone trying to sound like Wes Montgomery." He was trying to sound like more than one person at a time, and he didn't play the piano.

The fellows are Europeans coalesced from whoever's handy. They're not prepared for the tempo, or the hole they have to fill when it's their turn to solo. Wes just smiles. He's familiar with playing with inferior talent, but soldiering on regardless. He played alone for a long time, and he must have been inferior for a few minutes, surely.

Friday, May 13, 2016

A Maine Spring


A Maine Spring is like bankruptcy. It occurs first very slowly, then all at once.

Early Spring is dreary. There are hangdog snowbanks here and there, slinking around in the shadows like teenagers outside a liquor store. The passing of the snow reveals the dirty landscape underneath. The ground has a hide of pasty russet leaves and trash lobbed out a car window. The world's color palette lingers in the crack between Payne's Grey and tanbark. Green will be a fever dream of heaven for many weeks.

I make the mistake of predicting leaves on the trees for weeks on end. "Tomorrow there will be leaves." It never happens. Then one morning you get up and look across the fallow field, past the highway that snakes along the river, and see a battalion of birches with an aureole of pure sap green, right from the tube. After that, the world falls off a green cliff.

It's the fog, you know. It's cool at night, always. There was ice in the birdbath three days ago. The sun has trouble shrugging it off in the morning, and a fine mist hangs on the ground like a comforter until sol wins out. The mist hurls down green shoots like a gauntlet.

People wonder aloud why anyone would live where we do. I'm people, so I wonder, too. But the six months from late Spring to Autumn here in the western Maine hills is as sublime a climate as I've seen. It's crisp in the morning, warm in the afternoon, and cool at night, every night. You can completely regulate your temperature by opening and closing a window, or putting on or taking off one garment.

If you ever wondered where the birds go, I don't. They're in my yard, living in the birdhouse you told me wouldn't work. The tree swallows jet all over the meadow, eating bugs and returning like a missile to their hole. Gold finches rocket overhead like buzzbombs. There's a mentally deficient robin named Kevin, who forgot to follow his fellows further north, who bangs on our window every morning, wondering if they're in there with us.

You can't miss Spring, and you can't miss Spring. Our neighbor gave us a dresser, so we gave him a birdhouse. My little son and I made it together. He painted it and nailed on all the trim. It had the look of a person's hand, a rare thing. My neighbor is a nice man and a good neighbor, and makes it tolerably tolerable to live here, too. We knew his birdhouse would linger longer on his desk than was wise to cadge a bird's eye for nuptials and nesting. We offered to put it on a post in his yard, for he is truly a busy man.

He gave me another great gift, and let me take my son across the street to plant our flag of friendship in his yard. My little son dug the post hole, and we put in a post left over from shoring up our house. We screwed the little bird house on top of it in the lee of a forsythia bush just donning its trashy golden mantle. My son had dug a posthole for a birdhouse in our yard, so I wasn't totally stunned at his alacrity and efficiency. I was grateful for a chance to let our child do any sort of chore that would push his walk towards being a man forward even one step. 

The next day -- the very next day -- my neighbor sent us pictures of the bird that had moved into the house. It reminded me that Spring, and a boy becoming a man, occurs first very slowly, then all at once.

Monday, May 02, 2016

Meanwhile, In Maine

I live in Maine. Maine is, how does one say it -- different.

I don't pretend to understand Maine. I just live here and get along as best I can. As far as I'm concerned, Maine lets me sleep on the state's couch, so it would be impolitic of me to start complaining about the accommodations. It's like being Maine's indie-rock drummer. Anyway, I just look on in wonder, and wonder.

Last week, a guy that I don't know, but know people who know him, tried to commit suicide by shooting himself in the head. Three times. With a flare gun. While parked by the side of the road. In his truck. Which runs on propane, for some reason. He didn't die, because two passing motorists saw him and pulled him out of his burning truck. Because Maine.

Every single person in Maine owns a gun, but no one ever shoots anyone else. They won't even shoot themselves with a gun. They generally commit suicide by texting and driving.

The classified ads are a little different around here:


That's a real Craigslist ad. The fellow is selling his "tank." Needs cash. Don't we all?

It's from far-southern Maine, at least compared to where I live. You can tell it's not from real Maine, because the ad is on Cragislist, not Uncle Henry's. Real Mainahs use Henry's. No one actually sells anything, though. You can put anything in Uncle Henry's, but it will never sell. You'll just be swamped with calls offering to trade things for what you've got. I put a drum set in Uncle Henry's, and was offered everything in trade from firearms to boat motors. Everyone has everything but money in Maine.

The syntax in the ad is pure Maine:
This is a rare demilitarized 114 tank runs and drives awesome 283 small-block Chevy engine has rubber inserts to drive on the street on the tracks make it any kind of tank you want will carry a 10000 pound pay load an right now the total weighs 7000 pounds all aluminium drive it right on a over the tire trailer an take it home u won't find one of theses last one I saw on ebay sold for 25k
Of course it's not a tank. It's an armored personnel carrier, the M114. It was popular during the Vietnam war. Of course it was popular with the Viet Cong, not Americans, which is why a guy in Maine was able to buy one. It's made of aluminum. If you've ever gotten the urge to go to war with an overturned bass boat over your head and tank tracks under your feet, this is just the ticket. Some M114s were fitted with a Red Ryder-grade turret that made it nearly a tank, almost, kinda, sorta, but for the most part, you just shot back with whatever you had handy. Like a flare gun or something.

Anyway, the advertisement buries the lede, as they say in the newspaper industry. I call it saving the best for last:
will take vintage Star Wars in partial trade 
So. Very. Maine.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Things Are Different Today, I Hear Evry Muvah Say


I noticed this video was posted to YouTube three years ago, almost to the day. I notice all sorts of things..

I can't help but notice that the cat is dead. I've noticed that my wife misses that cat. He lived forever, but not forever enough. It's a testament to how accustomed animals become to being around a family, and vice-versa, that he wanders in and out of a trap set and amplifiers and isn't spooked, and doesn't spook anyone, either.

I noticed that if it was posted to YouTube on April 28th, 2013, that means that it was recorded well before that, because my boys' video editing rig has always been pretty barbarous, and it takes a long time to get anything out the door. That means it might have been recorded in late March, when the drummer was still nine years old. Yikes. I noticed he's like four inches taller than his mother now.

I especially noticed that the boys recorded this out on our front porch three years ago, nearly to the day, because it's been snowing here for the past three hours.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Perfect Pitch and Perfect Suits


Here's a video of my two children, AKA Unorganized Hancock, appearing on The Breakfast Club on Z 105.5 a couple of weeks ago. The host is a genial fellow named Matty. The woman's voice you hear in the background is Bonnie McHugh, the station manager, who took this video with her phone. She's a peach.

The kids enjoy appearing on the show. Nice people like nice people, I guess. This is the third time they've been on. The radio station is over an hour away from our house, and the show is on early in the morning, so we have to roust the kids out of bed extra early to make it on time. You'll notice the young feller yawning and stretching to illustrate the hour. He has Perfect Pitch, sometimes known as Absolute Pitch. He can identify any note he hears without any other reference. He can even do it with ambient noises out in the world, like bird songs or sirens. They didn't get around to it in the video, but you can play multiple notes on the piano, and he can tell you all of them. It's a very unusual ability. Of course his father, in his infinite wisdom, taught him how to play the drums.

My sons have a certain amount of aplomb, I must say. The little fellow, Garrett, is about to be put on the spot, but he's never nervous before a show. When he was only ten, the boys played under a little tent outside the Pickup Cafe in Skowhegan, Maine. They played one set, and then took a breather. There was a little courtyard behind the restaurant where the kids took their break. When they returned, the little fellow handed my wife one of his teeth. He had pulled it out while they waited around. Then he sat down and did the second set.

The big one is poised, too. He does get nervous before shows, but he doesn't reveal it. I can tell, though. The boys entered a contest sponsored by Z 105 and the Lewiston-Auburn Fighting Spirit hockey team to write their fight song. There was a battle of the bands to decide the winner. Miles, the big one, had mononucleosis, and was very sick during the weeks before the show. His first day out of bed in three weeks, he appeared on Z 105, and the next day, he played at the Lewiston Colisee, and the boys won the contest. No one knew he had been sick. But I knew what an effort it was for him.

After the Perfect Pitch interview you see in this video, the radio station hired Miles. I knew they were nice people. Now I know they're smart people, too.

[Update: Many thanks to Donald P. from California for his generous contribution to our PayPal tipjar. It is much appreciated]

Friday, April 22, 2016

The Genuine Article



I prefer my lugubrious fuzz-wah guitar playing to be accompanied by good singing, thanks. Sly Stone is Ray Charles from Saturn.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Happy Birthday, Mrs. King

[If you just stumbled in, or have very poor short term memory, I am recounting the story of a free clothes dresser we rescued from the curb during our town's Festival of Trash]

My wife's abandoned dresser didn't stay on the lawn very long. An old feller pulled up in a pickup truck while the boys from across the street were still carrying bits of it out of the house. He tried to mangle it into his truck by himself. He thought he was in luck when the kids helped him load it, but of course he had no idea that the dresser was made in Beelzebub's Country Classics Furniture Factory. My wife, bless her soul, tried to warn him that all that glitters isn't glitter, but he wasn't interested. He was a man newly smitten who wasn't appropriately curious about exactly how the new object of his affections became someone else's furniture version of an ex-wife. Good luck, my unwary friend.

A sense of urgency had now crept into the proceedings. My wife's clothing collection is somewhat meager, but it looked much more extensive now that it was on the loose in our bedroom. Steps must be taken. Her new bureau must be pressed into service sooner than later.

The boys had deposited the old ark in my basement workshop. It was already after lunch. I began to take a real interest in the thing, mostly because I had to. It couldn't be one of those projects that lingers languidly over the years, waiting for a supply of free time to make its appearance. I once had free time, back when Johnson was president, if memory serves. You'll be glad to learn it wasn't Andrew Johnson.

I needed to understand this wooden beast properly, or I feared I'd end up like the guy who was currently listening to the shrieking drawers in my wife's old dresser. I looked for clues. The drawers were lined with newspaper from 1960, which were a hoot to read. That sort of clue works on TV, but in the real world it just means the dresser was at least that old.

The style looked postwar to my eye. It was sort of colonial without being slavish. The grain was mostly obscured by the muddy brown finish, but it looked like maple, which has bland grain. It was stupid heavy, though, so I knew it was birch. Birch was cheaper than maple back then, and got used in normal people's furniture a lot. The dresser was made in a factory, but not a modern sort of factory. More like a workshop with a bunch of people in it. It still looked like humans had made it.

The drawers were dovetailed front and back. That's pretty old school. I decided to stop using my spider sense to determine the age of the thing, and looked in the drawers instead. I found the spot where my neighbor's big brother had written his name and the number 1943 in it. It might not have been brand new in 1943, of course, but hey, close enough.

The finish had been subject to extremes of sunlight and temperature and humidity. Not left outdoors, but I figured an attic or something. My neighbor later told me that it was left on an enclosed porch for many years. Bingo. The finish was missing here and there, but what there was looked like suede when you ran your finger across it. It was completely crisscrossed with fingermarks going every which way. I pawed at it a bit, running through the rusty filing cabinet of my mind to figure out what I was looking at. It came to me in a vision -- all at once.

I knew it was shellac. Of all the dumb luck. No one had "fixed" this piece of furniture in 75 years. It didn't have any new, improved finish that wouldn't last but couldn't be fixed. It wasn't "eco," another word for wasteful useless disposable plastic crap. The finish was made from the nasty ooze that comes out of a lac bug and dries on a tree branch. Your favorite Hindoo used to gather the stuff by putting tarps on the ground under trees where the lac bugs congregate, and then beating the limbs with sticks to make the amber flakes rain down. When you mix lac leavings with alcohol, you get shellac. It's wonderful stuff.

Shellac sticks to anything. Anything sticks to shellac. Shellac can be diluted till there's barely a whisper of lac left in it, but it still makes a coherent film. It seals knots. Shellac can be polished to mirror shine if you want to. A technique called French polishing is the finish you saw on Baron Percy Devonshire Smythe XXIVth's harewood and mahogany gaming table back when King George was still gibbering on his throne. You can make shellac look like anything you want. Our dresser had pigment mixed in with it to make a kind of varnish stain that could be sprayed on in one coat as an all-purpose stain/finish.

Shellac is so safe for humans to handle that you can eat it, and you might have. They used to make the capsules that drugs and vitamins come in out of shellac. And the greatest thing about shellac, at least for me, is that no matter how old it is, it immediately dissolves and gets loose in the presence of alcohol, just like everyone at your office Christmas party.

My wife and I play a game. We talk about what we might accomplish if we had twenty-five bucks. I always come up with things like fixing one of many leaks in the roof with one bundle of shingles, while her mind wanders to a new shower curtain and rod, or something of the sort. We put our ideas into practice whenever fortune favors us with a quarter of a C note. It's amazing how much pleasure you can bring into your life with a little sum if you set your mind to it. I set my mind to it.

I brought my 13-year old to the hardware store with me. That makes it a pleasure excursion instead of a chore. He made me stop on the way home at the waterfall, where we sat on the battered bole of a 75-foot tree that had drifted down the river and washed up on the granite ledge. We watched the water roar for a happy moment, and it didn't even eat into our twenty-five bucks. Here's what we bought:


That's about all we would need. I could scrounge whatever else was necessary from around the house. I let my boy remove all the knobs, so that he could be part of his mother's gift. Then we got to work. I poured alcohol into the spray bottle, misted the top of the piece of furniture, and then misted it again until it stayed wet-looking. Then I unwrapped a piece of steel wool, re-wrapped it into a flat pad, and went back and forth on the surface. The shellac quickly became a kind of porridge, which I wiped off with the paper towels. In a few minutes, the top was clean.

There was a lot of elbow grease involved, but it was easy work because it was effective, and showed continual progress, which is important to avoid discouragement. I went over every surface, laying the furniture down flat whenever I could to make a very shallow swimming pool for the alcohol instead of a waterfall. Keeping it wet is important, because alcohol evaporates very quickly, and when it does, you're back to the beginning. After an hour or two, here's what it looked like:

It looked kind of blah, of course, but it was clean. If you refer back to my comment about shellac retaining its ability to cohere no matter how much you thin it out, you'll understand that even though the dresser looks stripped, it's really just very thinly shellacked. It's sealed enough for a coat of finish, if that's the way you wanted to go. I could stain (dye) it if I wanted, but that would add days of work I didn't have. I put my thinking cap on.

Now is the part of the proceeding where the expert on TV mumbles, "And then a miracle occurs," and then shows you the finished product in the next scene. Well, I might own next to nothing, but everything I do own is useful. I went rooting around on the shelves, and found this:


I bought this tub of Briwax in 1986. I was working for a rich A-hole on Cape Cod at the time. His carpenters had installed the kind of elaborate built-in closet interiors that are common today but mostly unknown then. They were fabricated in place from birch plywood and solid maple trim, and then finished with varnish. They were as rough as sandpaper, and he wasn't happy. Like an idiot, they asked me how to fix it, and I told them to sand with emery cloth and then wax with fine steel wool applicators. Lucky me, they let me put the rich guy's money where my mouth was, and I spent half the summer rubbing the insides of closets. I still had a half empty container of the pigmented wax I used. Golden Oak, if you're interested.

The stuff never goes bad. I rubbed it all over using fine steel wool, and then buffed it with an old t-shirt. There was prodigious elbow grease involved, but the work wasn't really difficult. This is what it turned out like:

I replaced a couple of drawer stops that were rattling around under the drawers, banged in a couple of nails that had worked loose, waxed the drawer runners with regular wax, and washed the inside of the drawers with Windex. I started the project after lunch, and was done at dinnertime.

The thing smelled great, in addition to looking right smart. Shellac and wax is one of the oldest finishing methods for furniture there is, and one of the best. The next day, my older son and I carried the dresser upstairs in time for the birthday party, and we had a feast and a cake.

Happy Birthday, Mrs. King.