Slacking Off For Summer

Back to posting around July 9. These mid-summer days — Juneteenth, the Solstice, Canada Day (150 this year), the Fourth of July — ought to be the High Summer Holidays here in North America.

Days when, if you have the time and inclination, you can watch the clouds drift by.
The sky is gray and white and cloudy

Or listen to silly electronic entertainment. Technically, we aren’t in the Silly Season, which is late August. But maybe like Christmas, the season creeps forward.

Here’s a song in the big genre of songs known as “nonsense.” Artful nonsense, but still nonsense. Thus the video that goes with this cover is just right for it.

I had no idea until recently that anyone had done a cover of “Turning Japanese,” much less the fetching Kirsten Dunst. Lately I’ve been watching her do a fine turn in the second season of Fargo, and she also did well as Marion Davies in The Cat’s Meow.

Wicker Park, The Neighborhood & Wicker Park, The Park

Juneteenth has come around again. We need more holidays in the summer, and that would be a good one, celebrating human freedom.

We went to the city on Sunday, giving me an opportunity to wander around Wicker Park on a warm but not too hot day. I visited both places of that name. Wicker Park’s both a fashionable area — which it was not 30 years ago, when I first lived in Chicago — and the name of a smallish triangular park within the neighborhood.

The intersection of North, Damen and Milwaukee is part of the neighborhood, but I didn’t hang around there much this time. Instead, I walked along some of the side streets. Much of the residential North Side of Chicago looks like this in June.
Wicker Park June 2017The handsome Wicker Park Lutheran Church is at 1502 N. Hoyne Ave.
Wicker Park Lutheran ChurchIt was already closed by the time I got there, but the interior looks like this.

The building dates from 1906, though the congregation goes back to 1879. “It boasts a basilica design, with double colonnades and an apse, a style used in ancient Rome for courts of law or places of public assembly,” notes the church web site. “The two towers are based on those of Abbey of Sainte-Trinité (the Holy Trinity), also known as Abbaye aux Dames, in Caen, France, which was built in the 11th century.”

A few blocks to the east is Wicker Park, the park. It isn’t one of Chicago’s great parks, but it is pleasant on a warm summer Sunday, well stocked with people and their dogs enjoying the warm summer Sunday. The park has some trees, a lush garden sporting flowers and bushes, a field house, a modest water fountain, and some open lawn.

There’s also a statue of Charles Gustavus Wicker (1820-1889), complete with stovepipe hat, heavy coat and broom. It’s been in the park since 2006.
Charles G. Wicker Statue, ChicagoCharles G. Wicker Statue, ChicagoThere’s a plaque at the feet of Wicker that asserts that he was an important figure in the development of this part of Chicago. In fact, it’s a lot like a press release in bronze, this plaque. A sample: “The broom symbolizes his initiative and readiness to take personal responsibility. He, and people like him, established Chicago, where all who truly do their best will continue to make this unique community a place of opportunity with justice, freedom, and equality for everyone.”

About Charles and his brother Joel Wicker, the Chicago Park District says: “In 1870, when businessmen and developers Charles G. and Joel H. Wicker began constructing drainage ditches and laying out streets in their subdivision, they donated a four-acre parcel of land to the city to be used as a public park.

“Fencing the triangular site to keep cows out, the city created an artificial lake in the center of the park, surrounding it with lawn and trees. As the Wickers had hoped, the area developed into a fashionable middle- and upper-class neighborhood.”

Further discussion of Wicker and his brother is at the Chicagoist. A few years ago, the statue fell down — was knocked down — tumbled down somehow, and there’s a story about that as well. The statue was restored, of course. Oddly enough, the sculptor who created the statue of Wicker, and pushed for it to be in the park, was a great-granddaughter of his, one Nancy Wicker, who died just last year at over 90.

In one corner of the park, a troupe called Theatre-Hikes was doing a low-budget version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. No sets, just costumes. I sat down for a few minutes to watch. I’m no expert on the play — in fact, this is the only live performance I’ve seen of any of it — put I was able (later) to pin down that I’d arrived during Act 3, Scene 1.

Here’s Bottom.

Theatre-Hikes, Wicker Park

Titania and Bottom. Both actors were good, and able to ham it up when the play called for it, to the amusement of all.

Theatre-Hikes, Wicker Park 2017

Titania:
Be kind and courteous to this gentleman.
Hop in his walks and gambol in his eyes.
Feed him with apricoks and dewberries,
With purple grapes, green figs, and mulberries.
The honey bags steal from the humble-bees,
And for night tapers crop their waxen thighs
And light them at the fiery glowworms’ eyes
To have my love to bed and to arise.

Tempus Fugit, Raggedy Ann

Has it been 10 years since we visited Arcola and Arthur, Illinois, twin hubs of the state’s Amish community? More or less. I posted a lot about that short trip, including the nearby Lincoln family sites, on May 30 and 31 and June 1, 4, 5 and 7, 2007.

Got a surprising amount of comments on the postings — more than zero — offering corrections for mistakes I’d made. Guess people care deeply about the details of Arcola and Arthur.

I think no photography was allowed in the Raggedy Ann and Andy Museum in Arcola, since this is the only other picture I have of it, besides one posted in ’07.

Raggedy Ann and Andy Museum, Arcola, 2007

Or maybe I wasn’t quite out of the habit of taking only a few shots at a time, as I did when I used a film camera, even though I was using a digital camera by this time. Or the camera didn’t have a lot of memory. My current SD card has a vast expanse: 64 GB.

It didn’t take too much digging around to find out that about two years later, the museum closed. Of course the economy was awful in 2009, but I suspect the deeper problem was that Ann and Andy’s time had passed.

Everyone’s time always passes. Here’s another image from about 10 years ago.

DSCN0889_2

I had no interest in a birthday cake with personalized writing on it, so I just picked one from the shelf at Costco. It happened to have balloons. This year I had a chocolate cake like this one: the Union Pacific steam locomotive of cakes. We ate it the old-fashioned way, without making an image of it.

Thursday Codswallop

Had about an 18-hour period of on-off heavy rain ending around dawn this morning. Till then, June had mostly been dry, with enough wind sometimes to blow dust off the ball field behind my back yard.

I looked up codswallop recently, curious about its origin, and was not surprised that Merriam-Webster says “source unknown.” I was surprised that the earliest known use was 1963. I’d have guessed 100 years earlier. Has a Victorian ring to it.

Not long ago I heard a song on WDCB’s Folk Festival that wasn’t exactly my idea of folk, but not bad, except that the singer kept mentioning the “some-or-other” blues. I couldn’t figure out what she was saying. After the song, the host said it was the fomo blues (or FoMO or FOMO): pronouced Foh-Moh, an acronym for “fear of missing out.”

I looked into it further. I find it hard to believe it’s a real thing, or very important if it is.

Not long ago I found that some of the animation work of the strange Harry Smith is on YouTube. Wonder if he had any influence on Terry Gilliam’s animation.

I’d never heard of a novelty song called “Crawl Out Through the Fallout” by Sheldon Allman until last week. Found it on YouTube as well.

The album, released in 1960, is called Folk Songs for the 21st Century, but the style of “Crawl Out” is more ’50s jazz. I checked a little more, and other songs from the record are also posted, including the amusing “Big Brother is Watching You.”

You’ll disappear in a wink
Unless you can doublethink

Allman’s voice reminds me of Tennessee Ernie Ford, which just adds a layer of strangeness. Now there’s a concept album: Tennessee Ernie Ford Sings His Dystopian Favorites.

More about Allman is in his 2002 obit. He composed the theme song for George of the Jungle. For that alone, he ought to be remembered.

Hulk Smash Nixon? No.

As a lad, I didn’t read The Incredible Hulk. I didn’t watch the TV show with Bill Bixby more than a time or two. I had no interest in movies featuring the character. I’m also pretty sure my older brothers didn’t care much about the comic, though it’s possible Jim bought The Incredible Hulk No. 147 (January 1972) on a whim. Or maybe one of my friends brought the comic into the house and left it. Tom T., whom I hung out with a lot at that time, probably read Hulk.

Whatever the reason, I spotted the comic at my mother’s house during our most recent visit. It’s missing its cover, which looks like this (oddly, the text describes the second story in the issue, rather than the first). I might not have paid it any further attention, but then I noticed a couple of characters on the opening page not usually associated with comic books of the time.

img463No fictional president for this comic. Though not named, Nixon’s clearly making a cameo, along with Agnew, who is called “Spiro” a few times.

So I read the thing, just to see how Nixon and Agnew fared at the hands of the Hulk. The disappointing truth is that the comic had very little use for them. As the action unfolds, they’re at the periphery, though the boss bad guy vaguely mentions kidnapping them, or something. They appear in a few more panels, mostly it seems so the writer, Gerry Conway — apparently when he was very young — could have some fun with Nixon catch phases and Agnew alliterations.

img468img464Got in a mention of Kissinger, too.

img465

All this made me look at the long Wiki article on the Hulk, and I read some of it, but not even an appearance by Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew could spark enough interest in the Hulk for me to read all of it. I did learn that at first he was gray-skinned rather than green, which I guess is a factoid worth knowing.

Ravinia Circular ’17

We received the 2017 Ravinia Festival circular in the mail recently. Like last year, I decided to check to see whose tickets command the biggest bucks at the storied north suburban outdoor venue. Last year was something of a mystery, but never mind. This year, less so, at least in my opinion, but in any case at a price I’m unwilling to pay.

Who are the top draws? Performers commanding more than $100 for reserved pavilion seats include Willie Nelson, Aretha Franklin, Sammy Hager, Common, Diana Krall, Moody Blues, Sheryl Crow, Joshua Bell, Lang Lang, Tony Bennett, Darius Rucker, Santana, Alanis Morissette, John Mellencamp, Frankie Valli, and Stevie Nicks.

My reaction to the entertainers on the list is hm, interesting; or, they’re still around (alive)?; or who? All first-water performers, no doubt, but no one should charge that much, at least according to the Elvis Test, which I’m sure I’ve mentioned before.

Note the prices on these 1957 Elvis posters. Prices vary, but $3 is toward the upper end. Accounting for inflation over the last 60 years, $3 then = $26.31 in our time. Add another $5 or so because sound systems are so much better now, and another $5 because Ravinia is such a nice place, and needs to be maintained. I’ll even throw in a few more dollars just to round things up. So no ticket for a singer should cost more than $40, because no one is better than Elvis in his prime. A ridiculous idea, maybe, but I like it.

Who gets less than $40 at Ravinia? This year, the CSO for some of its concerts, and a scattering of classical performers. But I will say this for Ravinia: some of the lawn seats for its concerts, which is the place to be anyway unless it’s raining, are reasonable at $10 (though they’re jacked up during A-list concerts).

The top draw this year, according to the accountants, is Stevie Nicks at $200. She’s pushing 70 pretty hard these days, and I hope she’s as mellifluous as she was when I saw Fleetwood Mac on August 17, 1980, at the HemisFair Arena. No doubt her 2017 show would push all the right nostalgia buttons. But I can find ways to do that for a lot less.

Speedy Gonzales 420

Rain, rain, rain. To balance the pleasant weekends we’ve had in April, the last one was cold and very wet. On Saturday the water came down practically all day, pausing in the wee hours of Sunday and early in the day, and then starting again.

I looked at a national temperature map on Sunday night and a weird blue gash of a cold front extended southwest from the Great Lakes as far south as western Oklahoma, signifying temps in the 40s and 50s. Thus Chicago was colder (at 43 degrees F) than either Billings, Mont. (61) or Fargo (57), both of which are west of the gash. And it was 65 degrees in Indianapolis, 71 in St. Louis. But those places had the cold front to look forward to.

One thing to do during such days is to stay home and watch cartoons. We happened to have a disk around the house featuring an assortment of ’40s and ’50s Termite Terrace shorts. One was “Gonzales’ Tamales” (1957). Been a long while since I’d seen a Speedy Gonzales cartoon, maybe 40+ years since I’d seen this particular one, and I’m not sure Ann had ever seen one.

The closed caption titles happened to be on. Things were moving along: Speedy was being speedy, outwitting the gringo Sylvester, and so on, when Speedy sings a version of “La cucaracha.” Then I had a Did he say what I thought he said? moment. I rewound a bit, and sure enough, he did.

The imdb describes the scene: “Around 4:42, Speedy is heard singing a spoof of the Mexican folk song ‘La cucaracha’ with nonsense words in odd Spanish which could be transcribed as: ‘La cucaracha, la cucaracha, ya no puede caminar. ¿Por qué no Fanta? ¿Por qué no tiene marijuana par fumar?’

“This would seem to mean: ‘The cockroach, the cockroach, she can’t walk any more. Why not Fanta? Why doesn’t she have marijuana to smoke?’ The Fanta reference is the most puzzling part of the verse. But the mention of marijuana is clear, and how the artists got it past the censors would probably be a good story in itself.”

Heh-heh. I’d guess that there wasn’t much of a story in getting it past the censors. Probably Friz Freleng and Warren Foster (the writer) put it in to see whether the censors would notice. No one did. That’s entirely plausible. I’m sure I didn’t notice all those of years ago, and I might not have noticed this time had the titles not been on.

Birds Above, Mud Below

More rain, more mud. Such is early April this year. At least the grass is green, even where it’s underwater.

The season also means active birds. At about 2 this afternoon, I was out on my deck — but not for a leisurely sit-down, which was pleasantly doable on Saturday — and noticed a lot of birds in the tree overhead. Who sounded like this.

At moments like that, you feel like you’ve stepped into The Birds.

I saw The Birds on television when I was very young, sometime in the late ’60s. I didn’t see it again for about 25 years, though in the interim I managed to see The 39 Steps, Lifeboat, Notorious, Rope, Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, The Trouble With Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, Marnie, and even Topaz (Hitchcock’s Henry VIII; can’t really recommend it). But I never got around to seeing The Birds as an adult until the early ’90s.

From the first time I remembered the birds pecking a woman to death, and a guy lighting a cigarette and blowing himself up at a gas station, as an indirect victim of the birds. I didn’t remember that Suzanne Pleshette played the pecked woman. Hey! That’s Emily Hartley being offed by birds!

Also, somehow I had it in mind that the movie depicted a worldwide attack by birds. So I was a little surprised to learn upon second viewing that the movie was about a local incident. In the hands of a lesser director — let’s say much lesser, like M. Night Shyamalan — the attack would have indeed been worldwide, and CGI birds would have destroyed the Statue of Liberty, Big Ben and the Eiffel Tower, just for the birdy thrill of it all. Hitch would have had none of that.

Al Stewart at City Winery

Considering his longstanding love of wine, it seemed fitting that Al Stewart appeared at City Winery in Chicago last Thursday. I don’t share his oenophilia — I like the idea of wine more than wine itself — but I can appreciate an enthusiasm like that. Still, it didn’t matter to me exactly where he was playing. Some time ago, I decided to catch his shows whenever they were convenient to where I happened to be, and anywhere in the Chicago area is close enough.

City Winery is a relatively new place, taking its current form on the near West Side of Chicago only in 2012, and as such, it was a pioneering venue in that part of the city. Just before the music started, an announcer said, “City Winery’s not just a kitschy name. We actually make wine here. All those barrels in the back are filled with our wine, aging for your consumption.”

Carefully stowed barrels dominate the back of City Winery’s music room. The place also has a number of other rooms, including a large restaurant space forming the front of the building. All together, it’s a handsome interior space, characterized by brick walls and barrels and bottles, and the acoustics are good.

I’ve seen Stewart with a band, with sidemen, and by himself. This time, he had a band backing him, the young but talented Empty Pockets. They did a set before Stewart came out, including a fine version of “Fever.” The band’s relative youth caused Stewart to marvel at one point that he was being backed by musicians who weren’t born when the music they were playing came out, but who had the jam down pat anyway. That wouldn’t be quite so remarkable in a classical or jazz context, but I suppose it still is in popular music.

Though not a member of Empty Pockets, sax man (and flautist) Marc Macisso joined Stewart and the band for the concert too. He blew his sax like a man possessed, and did a fine job on the flute as well. On a number of Al Stewart songs, the sax is a defining sound, so it was good Macisso was on hand. He reminded me of the saxophonist who killed it with Stewart during his 1989 Park West concert, who might have been Phil Kenzie (who played on the record Stewart was promoting at the time), though I’m not sure.

The set list for the City Winery concert was different than any other of his that I’ve seen. After a handful of songs — “Sirens of Titan,” “Antarctica,” “Time Passages” — Stewart and the band played all of the songs from the album Year of the Cat in order.

The bonus was Stewart’s usual entertaining patter between the songs. “This brings me to Year of the Cat,” he said by way of introducing the songs. “It was a shock for me. I was an English folk singer playing in coffee bars, and all of the sudden people bought this thing, and I wasn’t sure why. I did begin on a very commercial note by writing a song about an English seafarer from 1591, Richard Grenville. This is a subject that most disco artists at the time were embracing.”

Stewart was being coy. If ever he did a polished commercial record, it was Year of the Cat (except maybe Last Days of the Century, which wasn’t as good). Alan Parsons produced Year, after all. The first song, “Lord Grenville,” does indeed mention Richard Grenville. He of “Out-gunned, out-fought, and out-numbered fifty-three to one.” I believe listening to the song in 1976 was the first time I’d ever heard of him.

About the next song — “On the Border,” a favorite of mine since I acquired the record 40 years ago — he said, “I thought we’d continue with mass popular appeal by doing a song about the Basque separatist movement, the crisis in Rhodesia and the fall of the British Empire, and amazingly this one actually made the top 40. I have no idea how that was possible. I can only assume the disk jockeys didn’t listen to the lyrics.”

For a long time I thought the song was about the Spanish Civil War, but I’ll defer to the songwriter. But it doesn’t really have to be about anything so specific.

Regarding “If It Doesn’t Come Naturally, Leave It” — my least favorite cut on the record — he said, “It has far too many words. If I’d known when I was 30 that I’d be singing it when I was 70, I’d have written half as many words.”

Stewart said that his favorite song on the album is “Flying Sorcery,” which was not top 40, but a fine tune all the same. “It concerns two lovers. I turned them into airplanes. They take off from the same airport but they get caught up in a fog bank and land at separate airports. Obviously that means they’re breaking up.”

I never quite took that from the song, but no matter. It has some wonderful lyrics, including, “You were taking off in Tiger Moths/Your wings against the brush-strokes of the day.” The brush-strokes of the day. What a way to describe the sky. It occurs to me that he’s done other songs with aeronautic images (not on Year), such as “The Immelman Turn” and “Fields of France.” (“When Lindy Comes to Town” talks about flight, too, but it’s a particular historic event.)

He mentioned some alternate lyrics to the song “Year of the Cat,” though not in as much detail as recorded on this Songfacts page, based on a 2015 performance. I think everyone was pretty glad that the final lyrics came out the way they did, including Stewart.

On the whole, Al Stewart was in fine fettle on Thursday. His voice is still clear and his guitar playing is impressively energetic for a man of 71. He also seems to enjoy himself thoroughly on stage, which must be why he still tours. Hope he’s got more years yet.

Afternoon Music Selections

Ann and I were in the living room yesterday, and I called up YouTube on the TV. It’s one of the things you can do with a modern TV and wifi. She wasn’t really paying attention, since she had her smaller electronic gizmo handy, so I decided to play “Telstar.” The video shows mostly unrelated space images, but never mind. I thought it might get her attention.

I was right. “What is that?” she asked. Or maybe it was, “What is that?” But I don’t think she really wanted an answer.

After it was over, naturally I had to play the Tornados’ “Robot,” whose Scopitone doesn’t look very good on a bigger screen. But the YouTube poster’s (in 2006!) description is apt: “Tornados rock the twang in a back-woods sci-fi robotic dance party! And then kiss girls!”

She wasn’t impressed by that, either.

If it had occurred to me, I would have dialed up “Trans-Europe Express” (English or German). It’s been 40 years this month since the album of that name was released. Of course I didn’t hear about it at the time, but in the early ’80s, and even then I had no idea that it had been received so well by critics, for what that’s worth. All I know is I’ve always liked it.

When I looked it up recently, I was surprised to learn that the Trans-Europe Express, as in the train system TEE, doesn’t exist any more. Probably because I confused it with the TGV, which is very much still around.

Or maybe I could have played Kraftwerk’s “Tour de France,” another fun tune from some other zone, or “Beatbox” by Art of Noise. If your children don’t think you’re just a little strange, you aren’t trying very hard.