Jeff Spevak, Writer

Welcome to a Chronicle of Culture.

I’ve run out of excuses

It’s over. And now it can be confessed. I am a fraud. For decades, I’ve been writing about the arts, while never creating much of any arts myself. No music. Or oil paintings. Or marvelously clever bird houses. Or even provocative graffiti sketches on the walls of public restrooms. Just words, words, words. That’s all I did. The world is overflowing with words. Too many of them. Watch cable news, and you’ll see.

Enough, already. So I retired last week. There was a big party at Abilene Bar & Lounge. With people I had worked alongside just days earlier, and people I hadn’t seen in years. People who had previously been simply sources on the phone, and now I could connect to a face. And many of my favorite musicians playing all night long. Phil Marshall, and his raging version of Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm.” A serious guitar player, who many years ago introduced me to the joy of vintage cocktail music.

I listened to each musician’s music, even as I tried to engage everyone in conversation; there was not enough time or breaks between songs to really do it right. And I nearly fell off my bar stool when I spotted my long, long, longtime friend, Mike, making his way through the crowd.  A relationship that goes back to our high school days. He’d driven from Alexandria, Va., to be a part of this.

Eager to celebrate my departure, friends gave me bottles of bourbon and favorite wines, re-christened “The Critical Mass,” with new labels featuring a caricature of me (fairly accurate). Along with other cool stuff like a peace-sign key ring, which I immediately put to use.

At age 66, I’ve never before owned a respectable key ring.

Lots of WXXI and CITY Magazine swag, including travel mugs, a baseball cap and a Lawrence Welk holiday DVD. Promises of future dinners. And my final story, a career retrospective, nicely framed and preserved behind glass, like an extinct bird.

Shot glasses of Jamison’s whiskey magically appeared in front of me.

I was thinking: I should retire more often.

And yet, “retire.” That’s the wrong word.

Recalibrate, that’s the word I’m looking for.

I’ve done it before.

Phil Marshall and John Kelley jamming at the retirement gig.

Here’s a biographical bit that I don’t often share: I began this journalism journey as a sportswriter. So yeah, I’ve seen Pete Rose naked. After a decade of that, I moved on. To writing about music. One of my first interviews was with Stan Ridgway, who’d had an MTV hit a few years earlier, in 1982, with “Mexican Radio.” Kind of an offbeat song: “I wish I was in Tijuana, eating barbecued iguana,” he sang, accompanied by an image of an iguana – or a questionable representation of one – roasting on a spit over a fire. I went to Ridgway’s show at the old Rochester music club, Red Creek, and gave him a copy of my story. He was genuinely excited about showing it to his mother.

I hope a lot of the people that I wrote about over the years showed my words to their own mothers.

Times change. No one watches MTV anymore. I won’t be reporting on the arts anymore. But music will continue to be a focus of my life. Here’s Suzi Willpower at the party, blowing away the crowd…


Last weekend, I stopped by Record Archive. I’ll always be grateful to the Archive, and co-owners Alayna Alderman and Richard Storms, for hiring me for a few months after I was laid off by the local newspaper. It filled a void, until our public radio station, WXXI, and CITY Magazine, picked me up off the junk pile and squeezed a few more years out of my carcass.

While at the Archive, I also grabbed the new CD by The Third Mind. A super group that includes a favorite singer, Jesse Sykes, and a favorite guitarist, Dave Alvin. It is glorious psychedelic rock, one of the best things I’ve heard in a while. I also found an old Thelonious Monk vinyl album from Italy; I’ll bet he never saw a penny from it. And, an impulse buy: Jungle Feast, a debut album by something, or someone, going by the name Exotico Paradisio. A 2020 re-creation of that old cocktail music that Marshall first introduced me to, with exotic instruments accompanied by screaming birds and monkeys.

Then I swung by a bookstore. I picked up a copy of The Little Book of Aliens, by a University of Rochester astronomy professor, Adam Frank. In the book’s introduction, he promises to explore the beer-fueled debate (that’s how he frames it) on the minds of his fellow astronomers: Are we alone?

To further explore that question, I also picked up investigative journalist Garrett M. Graff’s UFO: The Inside Story of the US Government’s Search for Alien Life Here – and Out There. Frank’s book didn’t bother with such a weighty subtitle, but both should work together to answer questions that have intrigued me for much of my life.

Martha, Jennifer and Spevak.

So there you have it. Recalibration, or whatever you want to call it, offers the opportunity to casually investigate my odd interests. Cryptozoology, that’s one. The Loch Ness Monster. And Bigfoot. The history of the Flat Earth. For all of these pursuits, I don’t take the position of “prove they exist.” I prefer, “Prove they don’t exist.” It’s much more exciting that way.

And I’ll take on one more re-recalibration. Write. Two bouts of COVID over the last couple of years, and a general world weariness, led to me drifting away from The Critical Mass. I’ll start plugging away again. Right now.

I’ve had one book published, 22 Minutes: The USS Vincennes and the Tragedy of Savo Island: A Lifetime Survival Story. See, Garrett M. Graff isn’t the only writer who needs two colons for his subtitles. Now it’s time to hit the accelerator pedal on the word processor. I have 2½ book manuscripts in the works, both non-fiction and fiction.

So, write. With little else to occupy me, I have no excuses.

Resurrecting The Critical Mass

Everyone’s screaming, “WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED TO THE CRITICAL MASS?” True, I haven’t posted one since Jan. 16, 2023. I’ve been busy, writing other stuff. Something had to give.

But the blog will be back. The first week of November. I promise. Mark your calendars…

In matters of life, death and football, question everything

This isn’t a secret, but you have to go to the bottom of my résumé to find it. Through the first decade of my professional journalism career, I was a sportswriter and editor. Lots of high school stuff. But I did venture into the big time. An interview with Mickey Mantle. And writing about Division I college football. The University of Texas Longhorns. The Washington State Cougars, I covered them for a few years.

And, in what was one step below that, what was then called Division I-AA, the University of Idaho. It was pretty good football. Very pass-happy. I watched virtually all of it from high above, as God might. From the press box. A view not unlike the one most college and NFL fans enjoy from their living-room couch, watching the game on television.

There was one Idaho game where I was faced with a tight deadline. As the game drew to a close, I wound my way down through the stands, and onto the field, which my press pass allowed me access to, so I could get a quick handful of interviews just as the game ended.

And it’s from the sidelines, standing alongside the players, that you really feel what the highest levels of football are all about. The speed of the players is startling. The hits, and the sounds of the impact of player on player, and players getting slammed to the artificial turf, is alarming. That close to the action, you see smears of blood on the uniforms.

The expertise of unnoticed professionals comes into play. Each team’s trainers know how to quickly get injured players off the field.

And I never thought much about any of it. Few people involved with the sport – coaches, players, sportswriters, fans – speak of it. Maybe they laugh it off. Or they worry about whether a key player will be available for the next game. But the violence is accepted. It is a part of the game.

Injury reports are as much a part of the game as each coach’s game plan.

Death? It’s rare. Almost non-existent as a calculation. Injuries? Not rare at all. Many football players carry their injuries with them through the rest of their lives. Knees that no longer function. The thinking process is fractured by blows to the head, bringing on early-onset dementia. Medications that are intended to heal lead to addictions.

You know where this essay is heading. Damar Hamlin.

Football fans watched on television as the Buffalo Bills defensive back died on the field, was brought back to life, died at the hospital, was brought back to life.

A decent guy and, by all accounts, a socially conscious human. Hamlin’s recovery is being celebrated today as the sport’s feel-good story of the moment.

But pull back from that wonderful news, and look at the bigger picture. The bigger picture of the violence that is the nature – and is celebrated – in football.

Years ago, in those sportswriting days, I was told of a high-school football coach who taught his players that, in the seconds after a referee had blown his whistle to stop play as they were running up to a pile-up of players, if someone from the opposing team was lying there, with his hand on the ground, unprotected… step on it. Step on the guy’s hand. Maybe break it. Put him out of the game.

This retrograde sportsmanship isn’t limited to football. I also knew of a high-school wrestling coach who spent an entire practice session teaching his team how to break an opponent’s nose by smashing it into the mat.

Why do we celebrate auto racing, when that kind of behavior behind the wheel of your family vehicle gets people killed?

As a sportswriter, I wrote about boxing matches without giving it a second thought. But this is a sport where the object is for one man – or woman – to disable an opponent, through tactics that you’d be arrested for if you engaged in them under everyday circumstances.

It’s a dangerous world out there, folks. People die of heart attacks while mowing their lawns. People die after their houses catch fire in the middle of the night. People choke to death while eating at restaurants and church picnics.

We weigh our choices. We take our chances. We suspend the rules of civil society if we can post the results on a scoreboard. And place a bet on the outcome.

The larger picture is not that an audience watched Damar Hamlin nearly die after making a tackle, on what looked like just about every play in football.

Football is not going away, and neither are chicken wings at the church picnic.

No, the larger picture is our willingness to accept a course of action as an inevitability over which we have no personal control. Close your eyes, there are more football games to come. But as philosophers from Euripides to Socrates to Albert Einstein to George Carlin remind us: Question everything.

BE THE FIRST in your neighborhood to know when a new Critical Mass has been turned loose. Go to the “Subscribe” button on the web site for an email alert. You can contact me at

Page 1 of 160

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén