Today's Special

"And here is Earth, a bright-blue jewel glittering in our modest galaxy, wandering in the darkness like a tourist in a bad neighborhood, about to be mugged." From "Stephen Hawking is a Peeping Tom," in Essays.

The Critical Mass

What’s the matter with Alabama?

The two of us had arrived early at a downtown Rochester hotel, and the room reserved for the breakfast meeting with a handful of invited guests was locked. We stood in front of the door as a hotel employee wandered off to find a key.

“You look really tired,” I said.

He admitted that the week’s travel schedule had been pretty rough.

“Well, let’s sit while we wait,” I said.

So Al Franken and I sat down. On the floor.

This was in April of 2006. Franken was in town for a live broadcast of Air America’s The Al Franken Show at The Little Theater. I thanked Franken for his help on a story I had written some years earlier about the comedian A. Whitney Brown. The two had worked together on Saturday Night Live, and Brown had told me that Franken was very supportive of his battles with drug and alcohol addiction. I called Franken’s New York City office and left a message, asking if he’d comment. My expectations were low; Franken was a busy man, many people wanted a piece of his time. But to my surprise, Franken called me back.

Sitting there on the hotel hallway floor, Franken said he’d returned my call because Brown was his friend. Then we talked a little about the rumors that Franken was considering a run for the U.S. Senate seat from Minnesota, rumors he had neither confirmed nor denied. He then went on for a few minutes about what he’d hope to accomplish as a senator.

I said something like, “You know, you’ve pretty much admitted right here that you’re going to run.” He just smiled.

A few hours later, 300 people in the theater and a large group standing outside, hoping to get in, heard Franken dedicate his entire show to voices from Rochester. This was in the midst of the George W. Bush presidency, and there was plenty to talk about. Congresswoman Louise Slaughter and Mayor Robert Duffy were there. Eric Massa, a Navy veteran running for a seat in the 29th Congressional district. David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize-winning financial writer. Rochester Institute of Technology professor Robert Manning, discussing predatory lending practices. And Dr. Mark Noble of the University of Rochester, explaining the importance of stem-cell research.

Ten months later, Franken officially announced he was running for the Senate. He won by the slimmest of margins, and was re-elected six years later. This despite ridicule from some folks that a guy who’d been catapulted onto the national stage because of his career in television wasn’t qualified for the job. Yet it happened, just as we’ve since seen that even a fellow who is famous for shouting “You’re fired!” at TV reality-show apprentices can some day be president.

So now we see Franken as one of the prominent names in this astounding wave of powerful men being accused of sexually assaulting women. And I am dismayed, not only because my two brief interactions with Franken were so positive, but because I like what he’s done in the senate since then. He’s taken the job seriously, and worked hard on behalf of issues that are important to me.

I look at all of this news through several lenses. Virtually all of these men come from the worlds of media, entertainment and politics. And almost all of the accusations against the media and entertainment figures had resulted in firings, resignations and the end of careers: Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Garrison Keillor, Russell Simmons, Charlie Rose, Mark Halperin…

But politicians such as Franken, John Conyers, Roy Moore and Donald Trump – George H.W. Bush even! – have not retreated into the weeds.

Here’s another lens to use when examining this news: Democrats and progressive-leaning figures on that list – with the exception of Conyers – are apologizing for their actions. Whether you think the apologies go far enough is debatable, but those men are at least taking some responsibility for their actions. Republicans and conservatives have chosen a different tactic. They are denying, denigrating the women accusers and attacking the media for reporting the story.

Perspective seems important, but I can’t decide where we should be standing when looking at sexual harassment and assault. Is Franken equal to Moore? Is Weinstein equal to Keillor? As someone who’s never been sexually harassed or assaulted, I wonder if I even have the right to express an opinion on the issue.

A few days ago, My Friend Bill passed along this essay by a progressive activist, G. K. Potter, “A Survivor’s Defense of Al Franken.” I don’t know the details of her experience, but Potter does identify herself as a sexual-assault survivor. You can read her entire essay here, but these are some of the words that caught me:

I’m sick of my traumas and the traumas of other survivors being exploited for political gain and emotional satisfaction on both the left and the right. Physically. Sick.

Potter charges Leeann Tweeden, the women who first accused Franken of assault – several others have since stepped forward – of taking “the traumas of the women and children that have been the true victims of sexual violence and used them for her own personal gains and the political goals of the Republican Party.” She writes:

Al Franken’s tasteless joke didn’t make her fear for her life. It didn’t make her burn the clothes she was wearing that night. It didn’t make her scrub herself clean in the shower until her skin tore off. This joke didn’t keep her up shaking and puking and sobbing on the floor of a shower as she bled down a drainpipe. It didn’t send her to the clinic for STD tests.

Al Franken’s joke didn’t crush her notion of who she was or how she could walk in this world. This joke didn’t give her PTSD or depression or any of the lasting forms of struggle that true rape and assault victims must face minute by minute. It hasn’t informed every relationship she’s had since.

Potter points out that the USO tours that Franken and Tweeden were a part of are highly sexualized shows meant to entertain the mostly male members of the armed services. They have been since World War II, and on into the Bob Hope years, which we used to watch on television back home. Which makes me wonder: Should the U.S. government be subsidizing such attitudes as we read news reports of rampant sexual assault in our military?

And Potter then returns to the idea that this is political:

It clearly cannot be denied that sexual violence exists on both sides of the political aisle, but it is the Republican Party that has perfected the technique of weaponizing and exploiting these traumas for their own personal gain.  

The idea that Franken is not the same as Moore resonates with me. But so too does the idea that no level of sexual harassment and assault is tolerable.

Here’s another aspect of the debate that I’m seeing. This isn’t a new problem. Powerful men exploiting women has been happening for centuries. Yet this new wave of outrage – led by women – appears to be resonating with the country. Can we find a way to focus this outrage as well on other issues that Americans are clearly in favor of? Gun control, health care that’s readily accessible to all as it is in European countries, and closing the vast disparity between the rich and the poor?

What drives a corporation such as NBC to dump Matt Lauer, or Netflix to cancel Kevin Spacey’s television show, is the fear that associating with them will hurt their product. It’s economic populism that might work.

Everywhere except Alabama, where the accused pedophile Moore may win a senate seat because, as Trump says, that’s better than losing it to a Democrat.

What’s the matter with Alabama?

Do you still believe these issues aren’t about politics?

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The Critical Mass

The Jane Mutiny celebrates The Beatles at WXXI. Photo by Sandy Embury Gianniny.


The Persistence of Memory

Connie Deming was playing at the Little Café Saturday night when a stranger came up to me. “I loved your stuff,” he said, and handed me a glass of wine. That’s been happening a lot since I got laid off by the local newspaper on Sept. 16. It seems like half the city is trying to get me drunk.

But I’m pleased they remember.

I’ve been writing a lot. Reading. Cooking. Doing laundry. Getting my web site updated. And going out. At Connie’s show that night, My Friend Bob told me about how he was walking through his living room while his granddaughter was watching television. Supergirl was on. Supergirl, Bob noted, has pierced ears: “How do you pierce Supergirl’s ears?” And yes, Bob’s right. If you’re aware of the Super family genes, bullets bounce off of these people. So how do you poke a hole in Supergirl’s ear lobe?

How could the writers of the show not remember that? Bob did. And he’s not even a fan.

WXXI was putting on a Beatles celebration later that night, showing the documentary The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years, followed by a half-hour live broadcast of the Rochester band The Jane Mutiny playing Beatles songs. “Across the Universe,” “Hey Jude” and a nice version of “Blackbird” that was hard to categorize; a little pop, a little R&B, a little soul. Everyone at the studio was remembering The Beatles, who haven’t been a band since 1970. My Friend Ken was talking about how he’d been going through some things at his mother’s house and found his old Beatles bubble-gum cards. He seemed a little more excited about it than a middle-aged man should be.

Mom’s been visiting this past week. I picked her up in Cleveland and, on the drive to Rochester, slipped a CD into the player. It was a new release, Triptych, a singer doing old songs with a big band. Mom loved it. She wanted to buy the record. All week she’s been talking about it, except she can’t ever remember the singer’s name. “Who’s my new favorite guy?” she keeps asking.

“Bob Dylan, Mom.”

She’s 88 years old, and doing pretty well. But we have some odd moments. When she visits, Fox News is off limits. I’m dismayed at how those people have distorted the worldview of this otherwise nice old lady, although she does seem to have finally accepted the news that Barack Obama was not born in Kenya. When Mom’s brain is not cluttered up with weird conspiracy theories, she does display an unexpected ability to recall ancient facts.

“Remember that little girl who disappeared in Cleveland?”

“No. Recently?”

“A while ago. Beverly Potts.”

I fired up the Google. And there she was, dozens of posts about Beverly Potts. Wikipedia, even:

Beverly Rose Potts (born April 15, 1941) was an American girl from Cleveland, Ohio, who in 1951 became the subject of a famous missing persons case when she disappeared only a few blocks from her home, after attending a show in a nearby park. She has never been found and her disappearance remains unsolved.

Mom can’t keep Bob Dylan’s name straight, but she remembers the name of a little girl who disappeared 66 years ago.

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The Critical Mass

Why we need clouds

During the Thanksgiving morning walk in the woods with the dog, she did as she always does, trotting 15 or 20 yards ahead of me, frequently glancing over her shoulder, checking to see if I’m still there. She has the same look on her face that I’ve seen on all of my dogs over the years when they’re in the woods: CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS? THIS IS THE BEST DAY EVER!

As we shuffled through the fallen leaves, I thought about how disconnected we were from the world at that moment. Neither of us had a phone. There was no way for anyone to contact us, or track us, or direct-market sell us something through a crafty set of algorithms. No GPS or device for us to ask, “Where the hell are we, Siri?” No news, no Trump.

Disconnected from the world. It’s a good place to be.

It was kind of a cloudy morning.

I thought about how technology has changed the way we tell stories. Remember how things used to work in Gotham City? Commissioner Gordon would run up to the roof and turn on the Bat-Signal, a giant searchlight outfitted with the silhouette of a bat, and shine it on a cloud overhead. It was always cloudy at night in Gotham City. And miles away Bruce Wayne, wearing a smoking jacket, would happen to be standing by one of the hundreds of windows in Wayne Manor, enjoying the view, when he’d spot the Bat-Signal on the cloud, and off he and Robin the Boy Wonder would go.

Today, you’d have Commission Gordon saying, “What, the Riddler is back in town? I’ve got Batman’s cell phone on my speed dial.”

Takes all of the drama, and the haunting imagery, out of the story.

Not that important, I suppose. Just something I was thinking about on Thanksgiving morning.

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The Critical Mass

After 6,000 years, civilization agrees on one thing: No eye gouging

Men have been in charge of what we recognize as civilization for about 6,000 years. The results have not been encouraging.

Men created war and slavery. Men are responsible for creating the mechanisms that have created a rich and powerful business class, a minuscule sliver of the total population, that rules in a self-serving manner over the rest of us.

The news of the past few weeks has been dominated by reports of men in powerful positions sexually harassing women. Men have repressed women for centuries, manipulating the biological reality that women are the child-bearers into meaning they are also primarily responsible for child-rearing.

The lobbyist for the gun-manufacturing business, the National Rifle Association, is run by men.

Men captained the Titanic and the Hindenburg, shot JFK, rode with the KKK, killed Bambi’s mother and led an armed insurrection against the U.S. government in 1861. Mein Kampf was written by a man (albeit a man with one testicle). Men ordered the Ohio National Guard to shoot at unarmed Kent State University students and purposely crashed Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 into the Indian Ocean. Men planned and approved the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing at least 129,000 people, most of them women, children and the elderly.

Men led the Donner Party into a dangerous shortcut through the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where they were trapped by storms in the winter of 1846-47. Half of the 87 pioneers died, with some of the survivors resorting to cannibalism.

Men on the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott case that slaves were private property. Men withheld the right of American women to vote until 1920, and still do not allow women to vote in Saudi Arabia and Vatican City.

American men conspired with Russians to influence the last U.S. presidential election.

The American president – a racist, misogynist, bigot, prolific liar and corrupt business cheat – is a man.

Men are in charge of the Cleveland Browns, who it appears will not win a game this season.

Men wrote some rules – no eye gouging! – and charged money to watch two people competing in boxing and then mixed martial arts, anti-social behavior that would result in the combatants’ arrest if it occurred on a city sidewalk.

Men have distorted cultural values. The most-overrated band in the history of rock, Kiss, is a men’s club celebrating juvenile behavior. A male executive at Decca Records passed on signing a little-known English band, The Beatles.

Adam Sandler, who’s starred in some of the worst films in history, is a man. The Waterboy. Jack and Jill. You Don’t Mess With the Zohan. Little Nicky. Spanglish.

Is any of this the sign of an advanced civilization? The evidence is overwhelmingly against that conclusion. After 6,000 years, it’s time to turn over the keys to women.

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The Critical Mass

Prog circus: Arthur Brown’s Kingdom Come.


Prog rock is crushed beneath the pendulum

The challenge came via Facebook from My Friend Patrick. “Jeff Spevak, what say you?” Followed by a link to The Atlantic magazine, and contributing editor James Parker’s review of David Weigel’s book The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock.

The headline: “The Whitest Music Ever.”

The subhead: “Prog rock was audacious, innovative — and awful.”

What say I, Patrick? That story’s off to a bad start. Whitest Music Ever? What about The Ray Conniff Singers? Or Lawrence Welk, fer crissakes? And while audacious and innovative, prog wasn’t awful. Mid-’70s radio pop, that was awful. Remember “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero?”

Weigel, a reporter for The Washington Post, loves prog rock, Parker hates it. That’s the start of a good argument. But the parameters of the debate are ill defined. There is some confusion as to what is prog rock. Rush, yes. Emerson, Lake & Palmer, yes. Yes, yes.

But is Jethro Tull prog rock, or merely a heavy version of Fairport Convention?

Is Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells prog rock, as postulated by Parker, or merely orchestral New Age?

I am neither hater nor fan of prog. I fall right in the middle, which makes me the perfect referee in this longhair-pulling fight.

Here’s a key piece is testimony cited by first Weigel in his love note, and then Parker in his attack:

“We’re a European group,” declared the lead singer of proto-proggers The Nice in 1969, “so we’re improvising on European structures … We’re not American Negros, so we can’t really improvise and feel the way they can.”

OK, so what’s wrong with that? Other than the awkward racial generalization. Prog does indeed have some classical to it, and classical is not much for improvisation. But a lot of prog – particularly King Crimson – does resort to jazz, which is all about improv.

Much of this genre dissection runs to personal taste. Rush and Yes, and their rosters of excellent musicians, lose me with the insectoid whine of the lead singers. And while Rush is hailed for its sci-fi themes, as an occasional reader of the genre I find the band’s ideas to be overly-worn territory.

In this argument, labels are handed down like prison sentences. At what point does psychedelia become prog? The Nice are labeled “proto-proggers.” If Parker is going cite Moby Grape as prog rock, he should certainly concede that The Nice, which debuted the same year as Moby Grape, is full-blown prog. The Nice’s keyboardist, Keith Emerson, moved on to Emerson, Lake & Palmer, a trio certainly atop the Mount Rushmore of prog. But ELP made the leap to nonsense for Parker after Emerson discovered the Moog synthesizer. To Parker, rock loses its integrity with the introduction of too much stuff. It was an overdose of the musicians’ creative juices as “like mad professors, they threw everything in there: the ideas, the complexity, the guitars with two necks, the groove-bedeviling tempo shifts.”

He sees even the stage presence of prog rockers as the result of too much thinking, citing “their priestly robes” as pretentious. But weren’t punk rockers in their artfully torn, black T-shirts and studded wristbands pretentious as well?

Popular music is ultimately a swing of the pendulum. Parker finds the appropriate quote in Weigel’s book: “Every new artistic movement rebels against whatever came right before it.” History bears that out. Sometimes the pendulum’s swing is generational, as rock gave way to hip-hop. Sometimes it’s a commercial wave, as pop surrendered the airwaves to metal or when disco was pushed aside by punk. The Ramones helped stomp to death the final strings of Procol Harum. In bewailing the increasingly fidgety nature of prog rock, Parker points out, “To all this, the relative crudity of punk rock was simply a biological corrective — a healing, if you like.”

Maybe. It could even happen within a band, as Genesis found when it lost Peter Gabriel and handed the microphone to its drummer, Phil Collins. From art rock to pop. Of course, none of this allows any credit to the teenage brain, when it’s most attuned to the miracle of music, and is open to diversity and setting its own timeline of discovery. I discovered the glam rebellion of The New York Dolls and the psychedelic prog of Arthur Brown’s Kingdom Come in the same summer of 1974. The same year that Bruce Springsteen spoke for me. Perhaps in a search for something I’ve lost, I still listen to those vinyl albums to this day.

And really, wasn’t prog rock’s downfall This is Spinal Tap? In the 1984 satire Rob Reiner’s character Marty DiBergi, who’s shooting a documentary on the band, reads aloud a review of Spinal Tap’s latest album: “This pretentious ponderous collection of religious rock psalms is enough to prompt the question, ‘What day did the Lord create Spinal Tap, and couldn’t he have rested on that day too?’”

Thereafter, it became impossible to take seriously any long-haired guys.

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The Critical Mass

People. Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em.


Connie Deming and Martha O’Connor. Photo by Aaron Winters.

People. Meh…

Crowds, that was the word for the weekend. I needed some new black jeans for Saturday night’s show, “What If Everyone In Rochester Wrote the Same Song?” So Friday afternoon, clutching 10- and 20-percent off Veterans Day coupons in hand, I drove over to the big box store to score a deal. As did everyone else. The parking lot was jammed. The lines in front of the two cash-register setups were – this is no typo – each 40 yards long.

At this point, sane people turn around and go home. I proceeded to the menswear department. My goal: Two pairs of jeans. This proved impossible. Crowds had spent hours pawing through the shelves, searching for just the right relaxed-fit jeans. Any organization was long lost, articles of clothing were flopped in piles like drunken sailors at last call. After 20 minutes I finally found the right size of boot-cut style and fled to what looked like the shortest of the two cash register lines.

I was now a prisoner to the comments of the people in front and behind me. It was like those stories they used to tell us in high school political science class, about how communism wasn’t working because in the Soviet Union people were always lining up for bread and vodka.

“This is ridiculous,” a woman snapped. “This is worse than Black Friday.” But she didn’t give up her place in line.

“Oh, that’s cute,” a grandmother-type said, pointing out a polka-dot top emblazoned with the outline of a schnauzer dog, definitely cheesy, not cute. Another captured customer idly recited the various Christmas-gift opportunities tantalizingly displayed on shelves as we crept by. “Peanut brittle…” “Mixed nuts…” “Milk-chocolate reindeer…”

An amiable codger strolled past and, joking with a woman, pointed at me: “That’s quite a line, he was clean-shaven when he got here.” I’ve been growing this beard for a year.

Fifty minutes later, I reached the goal. “It’s been this way since 9:30 in the morning,” the woman working the check-out line said.

Connie Deming makes a surprise appearance as Dusty Springfield as Martha O’Connor and I perform “How Did We Get Here?” Photo by Julie Gelfand.

Enough of people. We bailed on the Joni Mitchell tribute Friday night and took an offer for dinner at Tommy and Jen’s house. Dick Storms was there too, he was to be one of Saturday’s performers at “What If Everyone In Rochester Wrote the Same Song?” Storms’ version is a casual re-working of a song he’d already written and performed in the past, “Three Billion Hairless Monkeys.” It’s about too many people on the planet, and the havoc we create.

I got some sleep. And faced yet more people Saturday. Crowds of them.

At noon, J.D. McPherson was playing an in-store show at the Record Archive Backroom Lounge. The place was packed. McPherson’s from Oklahoma, but he’s built a strong Rochester following through a series of incendiary concerts over the last few years. Plus his drummer is former Rochesterian Jason Smay, of the Hi-Risers. This show was full band, rocking. The perfect example of a rock band as a well-oiled machine.

And then that night, “What If Everyone In Rochester Wrote the Same Song?” Nineteen different versions of the same song title, “How Did We Get Here?” It wasn’t sold out, but Hochstein Performance Hall looked pretty good with about 300 people on hand. Especially for the closing number: Storms had about 200 plastic maracas that were passed around as we danced through the aisles, then stormed the stage. So we were pretty adrenalized when we headed over to Tapas 177 for the post-show party. And again, the people: The bar was shoulder-to-shoulder, grooving to the booming salsa music.

By then the big-box annoyance, the curmudgeon dust, had long cleared from my head. The music did it. And the excellent people, all working to make something really cool happen.

In fact, I was so at ease that I easily dealt with a near catastrophe in the midst of my version of “How Did We Get Here?” I’d cleverly drafted the best singer in Rochester, Connie Deming, to make a surprise cameo. And when Steve Piper actually broke his electric guitar in the middle of the song, he shifted so smoothly to a back-up he’d brought along that neither my duet partner Martha O’Connor or I noticed what was happening.

After the show, a woman asked me if my version of the song was a true story. Did I once fall in love with a woman working at a record store who turned out to be gay?

No, never happened. Not a true story. I’m a writer, don’t believe everything I write. Except: Don’t shop the big boxes.

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The Critical Mass

Bassist Brian Williams tries to interpret a lyrics sheet as drummer Marty York looks for his drink during rehearsals for “How Did We Get Here?”

“How Did We Get Here?” gets to the big stage

What If Everyone In Rochester Wrote the Same Song? It’s gone from an amusing, backroom challenge among a handful of local singer-songwriters at the Flipside Bar and Grill’s open mic night to sold-out shows at the Fringe Festival to, this Saturday, the big stage at Hochstein Performance Hall. Eighteen local musicians presenting their versions of this year’s challenge title: “How Did We Get Here?”

Two years ago the challenge was “Don’t Go Drinkin’ on an Empty Heart,” a Fringe Fest sell-out at Bernunzio Uptown Music. Last year’s song, “You’ll Thank Me Later,” sold out two nights at Bernunzio. As Dick Storms closed out the second of those shows, his fellow performers stormed the aisle and danced to his gospel shouts. At that point, as much as everyone loved the intimacy of the Bernunzio shows, it seemed the next step was to try a larger venue.

I’ve heard about eight of this year’s songs. They’re wildly diverse and – not unexpected for a city stocked with talent – stunningly executed. At Tuesday night’s rehearsal, a few of the musicians were running through their creations one last time. Storms’ Eastern European apocalyptic warning. The Cole Porter stylings of Paul Nunes, amusing musings from Kerry Regan, the austere imagery of Lisa Winter. Scott Regan, the host of “Open Tunings” on WRUR-FM (88.5) is one of a handful of musicians returning for the third time, with perhaps the most-stylistically surprising effort: A rumination on vehicles that is part Beat Generation spoken word, part high school driver-education film.

This thing started in the basement of Jeff Riales, who’s probably the best songwriter in the city. Scott Regan was nosing around down there when he spotted a line in one of Riales’ notebooks. Riales said he’d never finished the song, and told Regan he could have “Don’t go drinkin’ on an empty heart.” So Regan wrote the first one, which he presented one night at the Flipside. After nearly two-dozen local songwriters had picked up the challenge, Sarah Long Hendershot took notice. She’s a singer-songwriter herself, her band The Jane Mutiny has a show Friday at The Little Café and a guest-filled, post-Thanksgiving Black Friday there on Nov. 24. She correctly figured there were enough strong versions of “Don’t Go Drinkin’ on an Empty Heart” for a show; She’s now organized three of these annual events. They sometimes include her own version of the challenge song (Riales even finished his “Don’t Go Drinking on an Empty Heart” for that first one), and a running storyline throughout the show, with this year’s host local comedian/actor Michael Kolden. Who I’m told was once in a play about eating underwear, so he’s perfect.

Saturday’s list of performers features familiar faces such as Connie Deming, Kraszman & Fishwife, Anonymous Willpower, Fred Vine, Maria Gillard and Greg Hassett, who was a part of last year’s house band, but is stepping to the front of the stage with his own song. The house band this year includes the scene-omnipresent Brian Williams on bass. The band is also drummer Marty York and guitarist Steve Piper, part of the night’s clean sweep of members of Watkins & the Rapiers: The two Regans, Rick McRae backing a couple of songs on trombone and accordion and Tom Whitmore, yet another singer-songwriter who’s taken on the challenge for the third time.

Along with the WIEIRWTSS veterans, I heard new voices at Tuesday’s rehearsal. Chris Bond – Scott Regan compared his song to Tony Joe White. Kevin Reed – a 17-year-old guitarist whose version was like a lost Wilco track. And Madeleine McQueen, a mere 21 years old, but with the biggest voice in the room. Like a few of the songwriters, she interpreted “How Did We Get Here?” as an invitation to comment on today’s political atmosphere: “The only light in the house is from the TV,” a metaphor for an isolated president whose only connection to the world is watching Fox News.

And there are a few musicians I have yet to hear: Phil Broikos, Mike Muscarella and Bob Bunce and Rural Delivery.

Another three-time performer is Martha O’Connor. Once again O’Connor’s much-needed, untethered spirit will join me onstage. An odd place for a guy who has never performed until well past mid-life crisis, but I’ve managed to crawl under the chicken wire and get into this event each time. My songwriting career now spans 3½ songs, although they’re not really songs. They’re spoken-word pieces. Stories. And this year, my goal was simple: I was going to write one where none of the characters gets killed.

That was harder than I expected.

The show starts at 7 p.m. and is $15 advance, $20 the day of the show, tickets available at Record Archive, Bop Shop and

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Setting new standards in American fashion

I understand. The clothing and accessories we see on fashion-show runways are not for human consumption.

But when I stumbled across a photo of a model wearing blue jeans that had been reduced to little more than a set of belt loops, pockets for her apartment key, a zipper and the seams, I paused: What is the outrageously paid designer of this outfit trying to tell me?

High-end concepts frequently reach for extremes. Some of the vehicles you see at car shows never hit the streets. New buildings never seem to meet the swooping grace of the architect’s drawings. Your dog will never look like Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club competition. These are unattainable standards. In your attempt to reach for this high bar, it is expected that you will fail. This is how the Fabulous People keep the Great Unwashed in our place.

A dog, maybe.

Those disintegrating runway trousers? Likely an inside joke by its creators. They’re laughing at us, that we might take this seriously. Or perhaps this was a Halloween costume, Jamie Lee Curtis from one of her scream-queen films.

Americans in general are not terribly cognizant of the truths that their outfits speak about them. Or the lies. I see people wearing sweat pants to dinner in a restaurant, as though they think it makes them look like a famous athlete. “Look at how much weight LeBron James put on in the offseason!”

We don’t think deeply enough about the important meaning behind fashion. Like the inherent sexism in this model’s tattered runway moment. Because as far as I can tell a guy wasn’t asked to put on this ridiculous outfit as well. Although I know several who would.

Yet sometimes we also think too much about clothing. On my bus rides into the city, out of sheer boredom I evolved into a careful observer of what people wear. I noticed the jeans that had been carefully sliced along the thigh with a razor and then run through the washing machine, producing a feathery effect. I saw calculated cuts exposing a knee. And the occasional slash high on the back of the leg, revealing a crescent moon of buttock.

You can do these reconfigurations yourself. But mostly, Americans pay lots of money for people in other countries to do it for them.

I seek the middle ground when pondering my personal wardrobe, and prefer to remain silent rather than make a fashion statement. Ripped-out jeans mean I’m sealing the driveway or it’s laundry day and these are the only pants I have that I can wear upwind from you. The holes in my jeans are honest, a combination of brushing against exposed nails and careless handling of chainsaws. Age plays a role. I keep my clothing for a really long time. I have flannel shirts that have gone through several cycles of fashion, from Nirvana to the Brawny Paper Towel Guy. It is a carefully cultivated realness.

All good relationships come to an end, of course. And so it was a couple of weeks ago. In a moment of couture self-evaluation, I realized it was time to put down my distressed jeans, threads stretched to the limit, fabric crying for me to end its misery. And into the trash receptacle they went. Three or four of them.

Where they were obviously discovered by a leader in the fashion industry, desperate for a new idea. My old blue jeans. Torn, caked with coffee grounds, smelling of shrimp tails, but remarkably close to what you see on runways today.

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The Critical Mass

A part of the uniform, or a sign of a sick society?

The World Series is special. That awesome Game 5, with the vast pendulum swings of lead changes. And Game 7, with starting pitchers thrown into relief roles as if there’s no tomorrow, which there isn’t. We even had one of the victorious Houston Astros ending his post-series television interview by asking his girlfriend to marry him.

And at the opening ceremony of the final game, we were presented with a beautiful rendition of the National Anthem by four members of the Los Angeles Police Department. Except why were those officers wearing sidearms? And I tweeted out that question. Then, on with the game.

And this morning, I’m thinking I’m bothered by more than just the hypocrisy of armed police officers creating beautiful music. It’s a piece of a much-larger picture.

If I were in the position of needing a gun for self defense, I’m sure I’d be happy to have it. But few difficult questions have just one answer. There are usually 30,000 gun deaths in the United States each year. Very few of those victims were criminals shot while committing a home invasion. Most committed suicide, were killed in an accident or were murdered, either by a stranger or, more likely, someone they knew.

Thirty-thousand deaths is an epidemic.

Guns are not only tools for killing people, they are political tools. Politicians use fear to move forward their agendas. We have one such politician/carnival barker in the White House right now. We’re being encouraged to fear anyone who is not a white Christian American. Left unsaid: Trust only straight, rich men. That’s also a part of their equation. Everyone else is either a potential terrorist or someone who wants a free ride on your tax dollars. And the answer is point a gun at them, or build a wall.

It’s a fact that, in this country, most victims of terror attacks were killed by a socially disconnected white American male with a pile of automatic rifles on the 32nd floor of a Las Vegas hotel (58 dead), or who invaded a Connecticut elementary school (26 dead), or brought a gun to Bible study in a Charleston church (nine dead) or parked a truck rigged as a fertilizer bomb in front of an Oklahoma City federal building (168 dead).

Any threat, be it terrorism or the faulty maintenance of amusement-park rides, should be taken seriously. But fear is used to cloud perspective. One of seven Americans will die of heart disease. It’s the same numbers for cancer. Those numbers are of no concern to Congress or the president  as they work to disembowel the Affordable Care Act.

Nor do our leaders react to a list being compiled by The Washington Post, which says 813 citizens have been killed this year by police. places the number at 994. The National Safety Council, The National Center For Health Statistics and the Cato Institute calculate that over your lifetime you have a one in 8,359 chance of dying in an incident involving a police officer. But those odds can go up, depending on circumstances. The most-frequent victims are white males armed with a gun or some other weapon. One in four people killed are mentally ill. Black males represent one-fourth of the people killed each year.

Of that average of 1,000 people killed each year in recent years by police, how many were unarmed? The Washington Post says it was about one in 10 in 2015. That percentage has dropped slightly each of the last two years. So we’re getting better? It depends on your reaction to one of those videos where it appears clear that a pissed-off cop executed an unarmed black man.

Numbers are easy to dismiss. Those same charts also reveal that over our lifetime, we have a one in 1,600,000 chance of dying from an asteroid hitting the Earth. I’ve never even heard of anyone being killed by a space rock. That number is simply an actuarial calculation based on the knowledge that humongous meteors are out there and the planet has been struck in the past. And if one the size that wiped out the dinosaurs hits us again, civilization is done.

Unlike meteor strikes, we see terrorist attacks frequently. Yet the Cato Institute calculates your chance of dying at the hands of a foreign-born terrorist as one in 3.6 million, and that includes the 3,000 people who died in 9/11.

So a story’s not told simply in numbers. In the just-completed World Series, was the excellence of the games, and the home-run record, a matter of great hitting or lousy pitching? It’s your perspective. We cheer when Air Force fighter jets fly low over a sports stadium. If you’re a shepherd in Afghanistan and you see a low-flying jet, you run. At a football game, people stand for the National Anthem. But when athletes kneel in protest of police violence against black people, outrage follows. Both are political messages. But one is allowed, one frowned upon.

One respondent to my pre-game tweet about the LA police quartet insisted guns are “part of the uniform.”

No, comfortable trousers are a part of the uniform. Guns are a whole other, and very ill-fitting, accessory in civil society.

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The Critical Mass

Truth and beauty: Hurricanes and other blowhards is why we need the arts

It’s been a month since the nightmare in Las Vegas.

A month since Puerto Rico was flattened by a hurricane, and still more than 70 percent of the island is without power.

Three weeks since the story broke that Harvey Weinstein, perhaps the biggest film and theater producer in America, had been egregiously sexually harassing women since the late 1970s, news that has led to an eruption of women who have stepped up and said: Me Too.

We install a government as a vehicle to address our largest problems. Yet our elected leaders have done virtually nothing about any of the most-alarming issues of the moment. Increasingly we have to do what we can, as individuals. And many small efforts can add up.

Rick Simpson, who’s a friend, and the 6 p.m. Thursday host of Gumbo Variations on WRUR-FM (88.5), has organized “Benefit for the Displaced,” 3 to 9 p.m. Sunday at the Camp Eastman Conference Center, 1558 Lake Shore Blvd. The $10 donation per person goes to the displaced victims of Hurricane Maria and the California wildfires. “We have good friends who live in Santa Rosa (thankfully they did not lose their house, but many of their friends & neighbors did),” Simpson wrote in the invite. “And a Rochester neighbor and friend has family in Puerto Rico. We have good organizations lined up to distribute funds.” Musicians are turning out and there’ll be an open mic set up, with folks invited to bring a dish to pass and a favorite beverage. Attendance is limited to 80 because of the size of the building, so RSVP at

I see other benefits this weekend. An artist reception with Rochester’s Darren Brennessel at 5 p.m. Friday at the Multi-use Community Cultural Center, 142 Atlantic Ave., followed at 7:30 p.m. by Linda Starkweather’s one-woman show, Travelling with a Broken Compass. A portion of the proceeds from the sale of art and the tickets to the show ($15 advance, $18 at the door) will go to relief efforts in Puerto Rico. And “Musical Relief for Puerto Rico,” at Downtown United Presbyterian Church, 121 N. Fitzhugh St., is 12:30 p.m. Saturday, with all donations going to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance.

The arts does this. Because we’re shocked that disaster can reduce Americans to third-world conditions, and our government is unable, and unwilling, to step up and offer proper aid. Instead, our president mocks the Puerto Rican people, calling them lazy and unwilling to do things for themselves.

And when the government does send help? Whitefish, a Montana company with only two full-time employees – but connections to the Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke – was awarded a $300 million contract to get the power lines back up. The contract was cancelled by the governor of Puerto Rico when people started asking questions about how a small company with no experience in such disaster-relief projects landed that job.

And look who’s on the job. We get a White House chief of staff, John Kelly, who revealed Monday that he thinks the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, but about a “lack of ability to compromise.” That same day, three key players from the president’s campaign were indicted or pleaded guilty on charges that emerged from the investigation into Russian interference in the election, with more indictments certain to follow. And as you read this, Congress is plotting a bill in which close to 80 percent of its tax cuts will go to the richest one percent of the population.

To put it in terms that some of these guys might understand, we pay good money for leadership. Yet we get nothing in return. We’re getting ripped off. I’d rather buy a piece of art, or hand $10 to Rick Simpson while Fred Vine plays guitar, because I like truth and beauty. And I’ll know my money’s doing some good.

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