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Mad, and getting Realist about humor

The first issue of The Realist.

When I was a kid, like 10 or 11 years old, My Uncle Robbie was the youngest, and coolest, of my uncles. He had a motorcycle. He went to Woodstock. And he read Mad magazine.

I never had a motorcycle. The Woodstocks I attended were the paler, anniversary ones in 1994 and ’99. But I did read Mad.

After 67 years, the magazine has announced it will soon cease publication, although that “cease” is kind of vague, as it appears Mad will continue to re-issue old content. And some of its legendary contributors said a few days ago that new material may even be published on yet-to-be determined platforms. Platforms that likely contributed to the cause of death: The internet, where anyone with a keyboard has the potential to create brilliant satire in this target-rich era.

Internet humor: A primary suspect in the death of Mad magazine.

Following the announcement of Mad’s approaching death, the tributes poured in. From celebrities including Weird Al Yankovic, fondly recalling how Mad shaped their own humor.

So yes, of course, I read Mad as well. Did, as in past tense. Maybe if I had bought a few copies over the last four decades, it wouldn’t be going away now.

But other culture was creeping into my brain. Mad gave way to National Lampoon. I saw R. Crumb and Zippy the Pinhead as philosophers, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers were teachers. The comedy albums I listened to, the mainstream of Bill Cosby, gave way to the edgy non-sequitur humor of The Firesign Theater and Monty Python. I could find Monty Python on television as well – thank you, PBS – and in the movie theater.

The two things I remember laughing at the hardest in my late-teen years, laughing to the point that I couldn’t breathe, were National Lampoon’s “High School Yearbook Parody” and the scene in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” where King Arthur de-limbs The Black Knight. “Just a flesh wound.”

We move on with time, and it can be a dangerous passage. My Uncle Robbie is in his late 60s. Early-onset Alzheimer’s hit him a few years ago. Now he doesn’t even recognize his wife.

The brain evolves, devolves. I was reminded of how far my own pursuit of the darkest humor went when I read this week of the passing of Paul Krassner, the iconic, counter-culture writer. Krassner wrote freelance pieces for Mad in the late 1950s. But he recognized that Mad was humor for teenagers. And he was an adult. An adult consumed by the oncoming political unrest. So he channeled his taste in anarchy by creating an underground humor magazine, The Realist. This was a proper vehicle for Krassner and his ’60s Yippie cohorts, known for pranks such as nominating a pig for president. Even Norman Mailer, Richard Pryor and Joseph Heller wrote for The Realist.

Krassner and The Realist may have been humor, but they were dead serious about it.

The Realist was over-the-top outrageous. Pornographic. Obscene. Satire is a killer. Why would a humor magazine publish a cartoon depicting dozens of Disney characters such as Snow White and Donald Duck engaged in a massive orgy? I suppose the message might have been one that is the highest duty of humor: to expose hypocrisy and corruption. And to do so with a tenacity that goes beyond a flesh wound. Was the obscenity of the Seven Dwarves engaged in anal sex – a perversion of many people’s definition of All-American entertainment – any worse than the Vietnam War we were watching on our televisions?

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Dr. Strangelove’s Salute to America

The M1 Abrams tanks arrive. Averaging two miles per gallon, they had to catch rides on rail cars and flatbed trucks to get to Trump’s “Salute to America.”

After all was said and done, ’twas climate change that rained on Donald’s parade.

Karma caught up with the anti-science president. First a blistering heat greeted his Fourth of July self-aggrandizement in Washington, D.C. Then a thunderstorm. And there was Donald J. Trump, standing behind his rain-splattered, bullet-proof glass, frowning over this unmitigated disaster. Describing how, during the American Revolution, one of the first things done by the patriots was seize control of the airports.

Indeed, he said that. This presidency is increasingly sounding like a 21st-century remake of “Dr. Strangelove.”

Hiding behind a plea to patriotism, and our military men and women, Trump’s “Salute to America” was attended by tens of thousands of people, when hundreds of thousands were promised. And no matter what number is used, it still leaves out hundreds of millions of Americans. Building on fear, we had military vehicles parked on the National Mall, guns pointed pointlessly at the Lincoln Memorial, or other architectural marvels that remind us of the country’s founding ideals that have been abandoned.

Despite this fiasco being paid for by American taxpayers – including $2.5 million diverted from the cash-strapped National Park Service, users fees intended for the repair and maintenance of those parks – the divisive strategies that got Trump elected, and continue to fuel his supporters, were evident. Fearful of the negative reaction that the historically unpopular president and his policies might draw, VIP tickets for entry to a fenced-off section of the mall – a public space – were issued to Republican political appointees and donors only through the Republican National Committee and Trump’s reelection campaign. As it became apparent this week that Trump might be standing in front of a vast, nearly empty space, members of the military were issued tickets as well.

Trump, who avoided military service in Vietnam because he claimed he had bone spurs, and because he was “not a fan” of the war, wanted a military presence at his parade. Just like the ones frequently seen in those bastions of democracy, Russia, China and North Korea. He promised us “brand new Sherman tanks.” That should be a treat for the antiques-minded men and women of our armored divisions, as the last Sherman was built in 1957. The cost for just the military aircraft ordered up for the event, roaring over the stage as Trump spoke, including the Boeing 747 designated Air Force One when the president is on board, was an estimated $1 million.  A stealth fighter flew overhead, although I’m not sure anyone saw it.

I doubt we’ll ever see the actual entire cost of this near-sighted spectacle. Did you know it takes 10 gallons of gas just to start an Abrams M1 tank? Political props are costly.

Yeah. About those tanks and extravagantly armed aircraft. In today’s world, they’re useless. That war in Iraq, with our tanks rolling over a museum-quality Iraqi military, was just a show. What was that about, anyway? Something to do with weapons of mass destruction that never turned up? Then we moved on to invasions of Iran and Afghanistan, which supposedly had something to do with 9/11. Again we brought out the tanks to clatter up and down dusty streets, scattering goat herds. And aircraft to strafe wedding parties; that actually happened. Any “bad guys,” as the military likes to call the people we’re fighting – a way to trivialize a complex political situation – simply disappear into the mountains or the general population. When our tanks and aircraft move on, the “bad guys” return.

After more than 25 years of perpetual war in the Middle East, we have nothing to show for it, except casualties and ruined lives. Yes, we build the best tanks and jet fighters. That doesn’t matter anymore. As we’ve already seen, the wars of today, and the foreseeable future, are cyber wars. Russians using the internet to disrupt our democracy, and build on the divisiveness sowed by Trump. The world’s countries are preparing to attack not each other’s military hardware, but each other’s technological and energy infrastructures.

So leave those tanks parked on the National Mall. As reminders as to how fleeting our grasp of reality can be.

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The yardsticks of fame

In Ken Colombo’s impressionistic photo, an eager crowd awaits at Brue Coffee.

About 40 people came out to hear me talk about the Rochester music scene Monday evening at Brue Coffee, as a part of the University of Rochester’s “Breaking the Bubble” series of outreach talks. Because the induction ceremony for the Rochester Music Hall of Fame is coming up, it became the lens for many of the points I was making. Here’s the text:

Thank you for taking a break from your April Fools’ Day Festivities.

This isn’t a lecture, it’s a talk. Feel free to shout out questions and comments. Or rush the stage and seize the microphone. This country was built on civil disobedience.

Let’s talk about yardsticks. How we measure things.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Michael Jackson, whether or not you choose to believe the evidence, molested children.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame: O.J. Simpson, whether or not you choose to believe the evidence, appears to have murdered two people.

The Baseball Hall of Fame: Ty Cobb committed no crimes. But he was a dirty player, and an avowed racist.

“Thank you for taking a break from your April Fools’ Day festivities…”

The Rochester Music Hall of Fame: We knew Son House once killed a man. He called it self defense, and did his time in prison. Then, thanks to research by University of Rochester professor Dan Beaumont in his book “Preachin’ the Blues,” we find that Son House shot and killed a second man. He spent a few days in jail, then was released. He pleaded self defense, no charges were filed. Son House evidently had a habit of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. So the Rochester Music Hall of Fame also has a guy who killed two people.

It seems like we use yardsticks of convenience when it comes to evaluating some transgressions. And there is no Hall of Fame, no public honor, that does not come under criticism for the yardsticks it uses to measure accomplishment. How do we measure baseball ballplayers of the dead-ball era against players from the steroid era?

So, how about the Rochester Music Hall of Fame? I’ve heard some dissatisfaction expressed with this year’s inductees. TV theme composer Jack Allocco, music-club owner and producer Jeff Springut, Beach Boys co-founder Al Jardine, WCMF. And a Special Merit Award to WCMF DJ Dave Kane, which is much, much better than a certificate of participation. Folk singer Christine Lavin keeps it from being a white-male sweep.

Our connection to some of these inductees can be fleeting; Cab Calloway was 6 years old when his family moved to Baltimore. Jardin? He lived in Irondequoit for three years, he was a kid when his dad worked for Kodak and taught some photography at RIT. Lake Ontario was his first beach.

Yardsticks change. With the Beach Boys, the yardstick was cars and surfing. And those cars were cool. The ’57 Chevy Bel Air, the 1960 Chevy Impala, the 1961 black Lincoln Continental convertible. They were automotive artwork, today’s cars are uncool. And surfing? The only time you hear about surfing on the news today is when a shark’s involved.

The Rochester Music Hall of Fame yardstick measures its yearly five or six inductees not only as on-stage artists, but for behind-the-scenes presence. The yardstick must reflect diversity in gender and race and genre.

And its inductees must be available. For those who have passed on, their schedules are clear, they’re pretty available. But you know the first phone call the Hall of Fame makes every year is to Renée Fleming’s people. And she’s a busy woman. Her schedule says no.

Fleming will quiet a lot of criticism the year she’s inducted. Unlike most cities with a music hall of fame, honoring their inductees with a chicken dinner, the Rochester Music Hall of Fame throws a big concert. This isn’t New York City, we’re Rochester, the opportunities are hit or miss. Maybe you’re not into Gary Wright singing “Dream Weaver” or the bassist from Whitesnake playing at this year’s show. But don’t tell me anyone had a problem with Paul Simon showing up last year to sing a few songs with Tony Levin and Steve Gadd.

I wonder if Al Jardine will bring any of the guys he knows?

Something else about the Rochester Music Hall of Fame. It had about $100 in its bank account when it convinced the Eastman School of Music to let it use Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre for its induction concert. I admire that kind of moxy.

Rochester’s scene has produced unquestioned stars in the music constellation. Chuck Mangione, Joe Locke, Pee Wee Ellis, Wendy O. Williams. But we need different yardsticks to truly measure our scene.

Our scene is real life. Musicians work jobs, raise families, do volunteer work. The bands they play in are skyrockets, we watch them rise and explode and disappear, until the next rocket appears.

Some light the sky longer than others. The Colorblind James Experience, The Dady Brothers. The Chesterfield Kings, among the leaders of the garage-band revival. Lydia Koch ran away from home in Greece and became a fixture on the New York City spoken-word scene, which came to know her as Lydia Lunch, because she used to steal food to feed the musicians around her. She tells a story of how one night on Cobb’s Hill she was held at gunpoint by a man who demanded that she lick his car’s tires.

Our women have certainly challenged the norms, haven’t they? Wendy O. Williams challenged materialism by chain-sawing televisions. The mystery was how this shy kid from Webster found the courage to do it. I guess I found out after writing a story about Williams for her introduction into the Rochester Music Hall of Fame. One of Williams’ friends from her days here contacted me with a previously unknown piece of her history; she’d married young, and left here to escape the abusive relationship. Out of her troubled life, and her courage to change, came a civil disobedience that should be treasured.

Like a lot of bands – The Carpenters and Karen Carpenter, The Eagles and Don Henley, The Monkees and Micky Dolenz – Rochester’s Black Sheep had a drummer who could sing. Perhaps Black Sheep would have gone on to bigger things if a truck accident hadn’t destroyed all of its equipment. A group of English guys who were putting together a band called the now-unemployed Lou Grammatico, hired him to be their lead singer. Grammatico shortened his name to Lou Gramm, and Foreigner did very well.

Some of our bands are built on similar chains of DNA rock. Lincoln Zephyr begat Rochester Music Hall of Famer Duke Jupiter. Or, if I have the biology in the right order, The Press Tones begat New Math, which begat The Hi-Techs, which begat Personal Effects, which evolved into our Margaret Explosion of today. And The Hoodies, a good but fairly standard rock band, made a quantum leap to Joywave, a high-energy, cutting-edge indie rock band that now tours America and Europe. Save a seat for Joywave in the Rochester Music Hall of Fame.

Perhaps we should be honoring moments, rather than personalities; Elvis Costello getting thrown out of Scorgie’s, U2 getting thrown out of Red Creek, the police shutting down a Rolling Stones concert after a few songs. Should the Rochester Music Hall of Fame induct the cop who led the bust that nailed David Bowie and Iggy Pop after a 1974 show at the War Memorial?

Perhaps we should honor eras. The ’60s, and The Invictas’ song “The Hump” getting banned in Boston.

The ’70s and Bahama Mama, who became The Majestics, who spent time backing reggae legend Lee “Scratch” Perry.

The ’80s and Absolute Grey, our own R.E.M. Immaculate Mary, labeled by The Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s loudest rock band, tossing condoms to the audience. Club crawling to find Marshall James and the Nightstalkers playing at Living Legends. Sally Cohen of Backseat Sally emerging from a coffin for a Halloween show at Scorgie’s.

The ’90s, that was a great one. The Frantic Flattops. Exploding Boy, Nerve Circus, Dog’s Life, Big Hair, Koo Koo Boy, Officer Friendly, Shop Class Squares. Phyllis Driller, with 10 horns onstage. And one of our best bands, The Hi-Risers. We were on the forefront of electronica that decade, with the acclaimed Vapourspace album by Mark Gage.

Our scene lives on through radio, in a way I’ve heard in virtually no other city. WRUR in particular, with long-running shows hosted by Doug Curry, Scott Regan, Scott Wallace, Mark Grube. And Mike Murray’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’,” uncovering current gems and forgotten singles cut by Rochester bands.

Metallica, before it became the most-significant band on the metal scene, used to hang out at the House of Guitars, asking for free T-shirts because they couldn’t afford to do their laundry. That was while the band was recording its first album in Rochester. “Kill ’em All” was recorded at Music America studio, which is now Blackdog Recording Studio, a little doorway off Swan Street by Kodak Hall at Eastman Theater.

Two of the four members of the Grammy-winning heavy metal band Mastodon, Brann Dailer and Bill Kelliher, are from Rochester and were in several local bands, including Lethargy, which frequently played the Bug Jar in the ’90s.

Kate Lee, a fiddler and singer from Webster, emerged as a star with the debut album by The O’Connor Family Band, which last year won a Grammy for best bluegrass album.

The Campbell Brothers are stars of the gospel-heavy sacred steel scene, and they’ve rocked onstage with The Allman Brothers Band. Watkins & the Rapiers, playing right now across town at The Little Theatre, has written more than 70 Christmas songs. Sit down, Irving Berlin.

Joe Tunis has played in a few noise-rock bands here. But for 25 years, he’s also run Carbon Records, a label that gave voice to our avant-garde bands, and even some national obscurities worthy of attention. Tunis is a detail-oriented guy. The covers of his releases are intriguing abstracts. The art of Carbon Records will be celebrated this month in an exhibit at Rochester Contemporary Art Center.

Jeff Riales writes songs as excellent as than anything coming out of Nashville, tomorrow he’s starting a month-long Tuesday residency at Abilene Bar & Lounge. No one in our clubs sings better than Connie Deming. Listen to all of our marvelous women singers and songwriters: Sarah Long Hendershot, Maria Gillard. Did you hear Kirstin Piper Brown at last fall’s Fringe Festival? The soprano emerged from a second-floor doorway overlooking the audience at the Lyric Theatre, stepping into the middle of a giant flower projected on the wall. You didn’t have to be an opera enthusiast to get a thrill out of that.

Our music ranges from the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra to a couple of people my friend Monica reminded me of just an hour ago. Lesley Riddle, who was a big influence on The Carter Factory and then, just like Son House, moved to Rochester and disappeared for decades, only to be re-discovered here late in life. And the bluesman Spider John Koerner.

The KeyBank Rochester Fringe Festival and the CGI Rochester Jazz Festival energize our streets with artists from around the world. But both rely on the local talent as well.

Our musicians have real depth, in all respects. Musicians such as Danielle Ponder & the Tomorrow People. Ponder left her job as a city public defender, standing up for those who have no resources to fight our justice machinery, to pursue her dream of being a soul singer. She writes songs that reflect the same ideals she fought for as a public defender. In my mind, she’s already made it. And that’s what the arts, and our scene, is about.

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 jeffspevak.com for an email alert. You can contact me at jeffspevakwriter@gmail.com.

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