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.
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.
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.