Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Politics of Mmmmm Feeling Good

Okay, did anyone else love it when their local "Mix-FM!" station would play this song? Jut your knit-pants-clad hips around your room? Sing into a letter-opener and narrow your eyes at your toothsome reflection in the mirror? Then widen them in alluring fear as some classified info relating to subversive Eastern European anti-Communist activities was revealed to you by a fellow operative on a smoky-dark dancefloor somewhere between Budapest and Vienna?

Oh, just me, then?

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Can You Live This Fantasy Life?

God I love European internet radio. It's so delightfully random.

Where else was I gonna hear this?

I mean, how could I forget? We are talking the Cro-Mag days of MTV here.

Aldo Nova, a Canadian one-hitter, Def Lepparded before those boys even got their legs into spandex, found the mousse aisle at the local druggists and set those Rickenbackers wailin'.

And who knew that a Les Paul could shoot a metal door-blasting laser from its neck?

Monday, June 26, 2006

In Lieu of a "Flux-Capacitor"

Playing a silly (and progressively sillier, as the evening drew on and more Champagne of Beer bottles littered the room) board game with friends some months ago got me thinking about time travel. No, not plopping oneself down in the middle of a clutch of Triceratops or some Braveheart-style gettin' medieval on someone's ass, or, lord, back to Woodstock or something predictably Gen X (okay, my pick would be Rolling Stones' 1972 tour, either Chicago show --with Stevie Wonder opening?!? Need I say more?).

I mean planting one's feet in real life, in someone's life.

The pleasure of snorting and laughing at my friends' responses to questions like, If you could go back in time, what is the one thing you would change about your high school career" has seduced me. Granted, this game-playing Friday night was in, what, February? (Oh, God, no; it was November. Now that is procrastinating). But my desire to know more about who my friends were before I knew who they are hasn't waned. I'll add to this myself, in the comments.


I'll just throw a random year out, with today's date.

So, where were you, June 26, 1986?

And, so as to not appear too nostalgic and I-love-the-80s, a random year: June 26, 1994.

Approximations, guesses, fabrications, exagerrations and fantasies welcome.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

North Ave. Bridge Is Falling Down

The Chicago Tribune reported over the weekend that there's a new bridge coming to North Avenue.

The 99-year-old, two-lane red steel bridge over the river's North Branch will be replaced by a four-lane suspension and cable-stay bridge, the first of its kind in the city, said Cheri Heramb, the Chicago Department of Transportation's acting commissioner.

Now while this is welcome news to those (including me) who detest navigating the Yuppie Hell Canyon (North Avenue between said bridge and Halsted) on weekends and rush hours, it is a bittersweet development. The report notes that

The existing bridge is one of the famed Chicago-style trunnion bascule bridges. The leaves are suspended on axles with counterweights--bascule means seesaw in French--and the steel trusses are noted for their curved profile.

What a fabulous description--there's something about a basic thing that, when it's named in French, transforms into another thing infinitely more enchanting. I mean, think of saying assistant instead of aide-de-camp, overthrow instead of coup d'etat, and "last show of the year" instead of season finale.

Apparently Chicago is known for the trunnion bascule bridge. No two are exactly alike, and others are found spanning the Chicago River downtown at Clark and LaSalle streets, and the world's second-longest is at Columbus Drive. The most famous bascule bridge is the Tower Bridge across the Thames in London.

Chicago's first bascule bridge was built across the North Branch at Cortland Avenue in 1902.

It's funny that the North Avenue bridge is being replaced, because the Cortland bridge has been recently rehabilitated. I live near the bridge; much of my routine travel spans that bridge -- to the grocery, biking to work, to the lakefront, Second City, the mattress store, Armitage Avenue to look for overpriced paper and plastic rings.

Florid name aside, I am fascinated by this bridge. There's a dedication plaque on either side, emblazoned with the name of a Chicago mayor whose father was also a mayor, assassinated in 1893 (a crime featured in the excellent Devil in the White City) and born in, of all places, Lexington, Kentucky, my own home. Carter Harrison, Jr., benefactor of the Cortland bridge, was elected in 1897 and served five terms, something his father probably would have done had he not met an untimely demise, shot after giving the closing address at the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition on the South Side of Chicago.

A smaller plaque is found on one of the bridge's thrusts, a boasting reminder that the only thing Carter H. Harrison hefted to open this bridge was probably some scissors to cut a ribbon across its freshly-painted span in 1902. Apparently American Bridge Company was newly-formed in 1901, and soon monopolized the nation's bridge industry and manufactured steel as well. Kind of like the Clear Channel of the turn of the last century.

My favorite part of the bridge is the bridge house, about which I could find no historical information (Google, you tried). Maybe, then, it's just there to be enjoyed, a quiet, tree-shaded place to pause and soak up history buttressed by massive red steel wings.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right

And in the most recent demonstration of Jukebox Fate*, add these ditties (played by an actual jukebox) to the annals:

"Two Out of Three Ain't Bad," Meatloaf

"Stuck in the Middle with You," Stealers Wheel

and, nauseatingly,

"To Be with You," Mr. Big

*whereby a song appropriate to the occasion or conflict at hand will play at the precise moment in need of emphasis

Friday, June 16, 2006

To Live and Die in LA

Top Fourteen Things This Midwest/Southerner Noticed about Los Angeles
(brought to you for no apparent reason by Wang Chung)

1. Everyone drives like a 75 year-old Methodist going to church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Sunday morning. Seriously. I made vehicular transgressions that would have gotten me honks and the Finger in Chicago. And then I did them to the peculiarly self-absorbed and timid drivers in Hell-Lay.

2. There are mountains! Real, honest-to-god, lung-constricting, neck-cricking mountains. That you can hike. You can drive a mere...hour (it's not "twenty-minutes-to-anywhere" San Diego), tie up your boots, adjust your water bottle, and head up an actual foothill-plus.

3. The uber-hip try to look "urban." Give it up, kids. You live someplace where your local hip coffeehouse is in the middle of an Albertson's parking lot. In spite of your aviator shades, buzz cut, safety glasses, leggings and vintage slouchy Dingo boots. You drive everywhere and tell me where your local sweaty post-punk-rock club is located (my guess: a El Pollo Loco parking lot).

4. Vietnamese food: super-super yummy. They got the Asian foods down, baby. I had the same beef pho at the same restaurant three times in twice as many days.

5. Addendum to #1: drivers stop for pedestrians to cross the street. Let me repeat myself: DRIVERS. STOP. FOR. PEDESTRIANS.

6. Beverly Hills was boring. It felt and smelled like old, rich people and Rodeo Drive looked just like St. Armands Circle in Sarasota, Florida (see above about rich, old people), just spread out in a straight line, not a circle. The stand-alone Jimmy Choo store looked cool, though.

7. I like looking at bougainvillea in person as much as I like to say it and look at the word. In LA, it's mostly the red variety.

8. Can you name a kid Bougainvillea? Or is that just too early 00's celebrity?

9. Yes, there has been some plastic surgery. Everywhere.

10. I like the palm trees with the pom-pom tops the best.

11. You can travel half an hour one way and hike, or thirty minutes the other direction and beach it. But if you plan to do both in an afternoon, better chug a latte (the most delicious ever EVER!) from one of the omnipresent Coffee Bean (full name: Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf--and no, I didn't see Nicole Richie there though US Magazine would have you believe she sleeps on a cot in the back room): traffic between these two ambrosial extremes is exhausting (see number one).

12. This city is not the celebrity ant farm I was led to believe it was (I'm glaring at you I didn't see a single one--except that one woman biking in a hat and sunglasses along Venice Beach who might have been Marg Helgenberger.

13. Downtown LA is no downtown at all: it's skeevy and empty and steely-grey. The fabric district, on downtown's edge, is overrun with people and color, though.

14. The burrito is a popular food item. And it's universally advertised with a sad burro, a jaunty burro, a dancing burro, a jaunty burro dancing on an egg, or a bedroom-eyed burro.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

And So On and So On and Scooby Dooby Dooby

The theme of today's post is blogging everyday.

I don't understand how people can blog everyday. My fellow (and everyday) blogger Justin from Schadenfreude blogs daily, and recently mused on the same topic. Then, of course, there's the gossip bloggers, those cyber virtuosos who (how?) post reams of text and celeb glossies daily. Oh, and are clever, too. Clever on command. Not when they are walking to get a Potbelly and then forget the so-damn-funny thing they wanted to say when back in front of the Dell flatscreen.

I imagine daily blogging requires the dexterity and determination of an athlete. Or, duh, a salary. Of course I have blabbed before (and will again) about how great it would be to write everyday, and for a living--yet when faced with the free, viable, no-brain, 24-7 opportunity to do so, and with a guaranteed audience of at least one free-porn spammer--I've managed a paltry couple-dozen posts in over a year. Factor in the reality that most of what I have written in general, outside of blogging, since the end of 2003 has been academic and typically involves an annotated bibliography and copious citations from Michel Foucault. You'd think I'd be slavering for an opportunity to say what I want, when I want, how I want--and not have to do it in 8 to 15 pages, double-spaced.

When I blog, I inevitably don't just write. I have to craft. And I am not saying "craft" to insinuate that I am toiling any harder than anyone else or aspire to or fancy myself as some Blogger Laureate. What I mean is, when I write, I am sighingly opening a new browser window, groaningly typing into the address bar, and dizzying myself with the legion of potential replacements for "anger" or "deft" or "simulacre."

I have to make things harder than they have to be. But isn't that, in a way, a means of demanding (again, not aiming for loftiness) excellence? And I'll have you know I came thisclose to surfing for a better word than ""loftiness."

Perhaps my writing process mirrors how I shop. Unless I am struck by sudden inspiration and/or luck ($200 designer sandals for 35 bucks! Perfect words--like "choleric" that just pop into mind!), it's a long and winding road involving the investigation of every possible avenue until a decision is made. I mean, this is why both Ebay and thesauri are online, right, to provide the chance for all chances to be exhausted?

Maybe I should try to define my blog, then. Centrifuge it down to its essence. Well, folks, that would be the twin obsessions: music and words.

Wow, that's a wee bit sweeping--which is maybe why I don't touch this damn thing very often.

Or, maybe I need more persistent theme. A reportage. A project, like assigning myself a handful of terrible summer-season, prime-time network television programs to watch weekly and on which to comment, whilst monitoring the deadening of my motor and intellectual skills, and cagily making world-wise observations about culture-at-large.

But, no. I have a nice flower garden planted this year, and I'd like to enjoy it and good wine and friends, away from the t.v.

Yes, I think I'll blog as much as feels rigorous, and as little as feels seditious and exhilarating.

...And I wrote that without a thesaurus.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Zing! Boom! Ta-Ra-Rel!

The Brewers' new digs in Milwaukee are see-wank.

Bernie the Brewer's still there, bedecked with a new, stiff yellow mustache. He still pops up at the top of a slide that's nestled in the right field corner when the Brewers homer, but he lands on a Home Plate instead of in a mug of beer (with balloons that pop out when he lands).

Too bad--but what other ballpark has everyone singing "Roll Out the Barrel" after beer sales have ceased for the game?

Friday, June 09, 2006

Going In and Out of Changes

March 8, 2006:

I can’t remember the first time I heard “The Best of My Love,” but it must have blared from my transistor radio, the one shaped like Yogi Bear’s head that dangled from a strap around my wrist as I roamed my big backyard. This was the summer of 1977, when I was given a big party in that yard for my seventh birthday, with twelve girls, streamered card tables posed awkwardly in the lumpy grass, and a pink cake topped with June strawberries. I wore two high pigtails and pink shorts and a smocked tank top, and, later that afternoon, my new Donny and Marie t-shirt, until my mom told me to take it off, didn’t I think it was going to get dirty if I got on the swing again? We played pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey and another game, some kind of ring toss with 16-ounce returnable Tab bottles, to the applause of my four aunts, three great-aunts, two grandmothers and my dad’s father, who always had a Manhattan in hand by four in the afternoon. My other grandfather was probably watching my five uncles and Dad play horseshoes, refreshing their beers from the cooler my uncle Kenny placed in the sandy grass right by the pit.

“The Best of My Love” broke onto the pop music charts right about that time, June of ‘77, sending The Emotions, sisters and singers from Chicago, up the Hot 100 over the next twenty-three weeks of what my family kept calling an awfully humid Kentucky summer. But I doubt that they—including my aunt Carol, who loved to go “disco dancing,” nor her husband Kenny—can recall hearing this song. And maybe you can’t, either. But that’s only partly why this song is my song.


In a black-and-white publicity still of The Emotions, the Hutchinson sisters, Sheila, Wanda and Jeanette, wear Thirties-style cloche hats and display an earnest, toothy friendliness that makes Donna Summer’s long, lipsticked and glittered face glower as if from a poster for a triple-X flick. The Queen of Disco released “I Feel Love,” the follow-up to her sixteen-minute orgasmic opus, “Love to Love You Baby,” in ’77. The first dance hit recorded with an entirely synthesized backing track, Summer’s ode to even more orgasmic joy didn’t hit number one, and I think the ersatz sound of “I Feel Love” is why—pop wasn’t ready for (to paraphrase Steely Dan) “the mechanized hum of another world.” With “The Best of My Love,” the number one song in the country in August and September 1977, the Queen was—at least until she released “MacArthur Park” the next year—dethroned by some fresh-faced girls who sang gospel as children, backed by live instruments.

Disco ascended to its peak in the year 1977, and didn’t start its inexorable slide into derision until well after the release of Saturday Night Fever at the end of that year, until every last high-pitched warble from that film’s soundtrack had drenched nation’s ears for the millionth time. In June of ‘77, during the week of my seventh birthday party, the feathery, tamborine-shaking boogie of K.C. and the Sunshine Band reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100, but only for one week. Yet “I’m Your Boogie Man” still plays—and is recognized almost thirty years later—in Dick’s Last Resorts and Bennigans and any bar that serves shots in test tubes. “The Best of My Love” just doesn’t resurface in TGI Fridays, and isn’t repackaged as today’s “smooth jazz”,” or really played anywhere outside of a smaller-market lite-FM radio station’s annual “One-Hit Wonder Weekend.”

That is, except when I need to hear it.

I believe in Jukebox Fate, whereby a song appropriate to the occasion or conflict at hand will play at the precise moment in need of emphasis—and not necessarily on an actual jukebox. Once, in a Chicago hole-in-the-wall that my beer-drinking friends and I favored one spring, I was dishing with a girlfriend about a bad breakup, and the lurid details were underscored suddenly and dramatically by Paula Abdul bleating “He’s a cold-hearted snake (look into his eyes)/Uh-oh, he’s been tellin’ lies.” And the song that’s pounded from nightclub speakers, pulsed in radio waves through my headphones, wafted from tinny grocery store p.a. systems with spooky precision just when I needed to hear it the most is “The Best of My Love.” The song is, cheesily enough, what’s best about love, it pulses on your skin in a way that Summer’s chilly metallic beats can’t.

It’s pure joy.


Before you argue that every song ever recorded since RCA Victor’s “little nipper” dog first put his fuzzy ear to that proto-record player is about love, I have to tell you—this song is different. The Hutchinson sisters’ disco ecstasy doesn’t peak like Donna Summer’s come-hither contralto or Thelma Houston’s aggressive plea of “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” The song explodes out of the gate, a high-strung thoroughbred, with a startling blast of horns—then a single, lazy guitar lick eases into a groove so low-slung it fits across your hips like a leather belt. Wanda confidently begins:

Doesn't take much to make me happyand make me smile
Never never will I feel discouraged
Cause our love's no mystery

She spreads the gravel in her voice where it counts, on “happy” and “love,” but is singing an octave above her range, as directed by Maurice White of Seventies R&B juggernaut Earth, Wind, and Fire, who composed and helmed the song in the studio. Wanda’s barely perceptible reach for the notes leavens the song, makes it hungry. Or, maybe its bliss springs from the sisters’ gospel roots, when they were, (presciently, I would say) known as The Heavenly Sunbeams, or from their anticipation of a star-flecked career guided by White (which didn’t happen). All I know is, what I hear is not only the joy of being in love with someone, but being in love with life, with oneself.

Goin' in and out of changes
The kind that come around each day
My life has a better meaning
Love has kissed me in a beautiful way

Wanda and her sisters keep that loping groove aloft with the chorus that may (or may not) spark your recognition of the song:

Whoa whoa, you've got the best of my love

Then their honey harmony, the laconic guitar, the bass line ambling like a staircase, horns bursting, clouds through sunshine, build to a single “oh!” on which Wanda hits a note of such singular, delicious flawlessness that I want to fling my arms open to hold it.


In 1991, Mariah Carey and her producers, C&C Music Factory, explained in interviews that the newly-minted pop diva’s number-one hit “Emotion” was inspired by “The Best of My Love.” Their flattery was so sincere that it was taken as imitation: The Emotions started a lawsuit which was apparently settled out of court, with no public statement issued. I can’t say I blame them: Carey’s workhouse attempt to capture the silky elation of “The Best of My Love” comes off as if she’s struggling to win a helium balloon-sucking contest—and sounds just as pleasant. Carey’s career, despite some ill-judged recordings, a self-congratulatory biopic, and ever-shrinking hem- and necklines, persists, while the Emotions disappeared even before the sun set on the Seventies.

So why did this hit become a one-hit? When The Emotions reigned 1977, there was no satellite radio, internet—FM was barely out of its adolescence. And charts meant airplay, not sales, and airplay wasn’t hastened as it is today, with backroom deals between executives who worked for the corporation that owned the record label, the radio station, and the concert venue down the street. In ’77, “The Best of My Love” was sewn into a collective summer consciousness: Fourth of July flags flapped in time with its beat, the harmonies skated over sunset-lit swimming pools, vodka-cranberries were flung onto disco club tables and spike-heeled feet scampered to dance floors as its opening horns blared. Even though I was barely seven, gravely worried whether I could wear my red satin shorts with the white piping under my Catholic school uniform for P.E. class, I must have felt those notes, ones that somehow became implanted in my senses during that summer before second grade. For everyone else, I like to think that once that summer faded, the song was firmly folded into the drawer of memory by the brassy sounds of our late century’s first blockbusters: Star Wars and Saturday Night Fever.


If you saw the film Boogie Nights, “The Best of My Love” just might tickle your memory. It’s the track that played under the masterful opening scene of the film, where director P.T. Anderson introduces not just the shiny disco club inhabited by his protagonists but a slice of 1977 in a single, giddily continuous camera shot: San Fernando Valley, clams on the half-shell and cold Riunite, designer roller skates, porn stars in owned—not rented—Cadillac Sevilles, blow and back-room hustling. But that wasn’t our summer in Lexington. We were in the heart of Central Kentucky, where the multifarious crises of the Seventies—gas shortages, inflation, Nixon’s crash-and-burn—were felt but didn’t defuse the explosion of in-ground pools, brick-and-balcony apartment complexes and ground-hugging ranch homes around the city’s “beltline” highway. New Circle Road hadn’t been new since my mother tossed her white graduation cap outside of her high school in early summer 1966, feeling, perhaps, the kind of swelling thrill in her heart that “The Best of My Love” would have wrought if the Hutchinson sisters had sung it then. But disco needed the early Seventies’ disillusionment and frenzied sexual tumult to catapult its god-awful gaud into the mainstream, so Mom had to jump and hug her girlfriends and, probably later on during that graduation night, do the Mashed Potato to Wilson Pickett growling “Tell me!” during the herky-jerk chorus of “Land of 1,000 Dances.”


Summers changed after 1977. I had been the only grandchild and niece to five aunts and six uncles, had experienced the rapture of getting Christmas and birthday presents from each of them, of every coo and paddy-cake clap and toddling step being celebrated and thoroughly recounted later. Everyone had my grade school photo, me posed, bangs brushed flat, in a Mickey and Minnie Mouse dress, in their wallet. Then my sister showed up less than two years later, and the first cousin arrived on the scene in early 1978—meaning that he was present at my seventh birthday party, for my aunt possibly knew she was pregnant when she clapped at my blown-out candles in June 1977, the last summer that was all mine. And while I can’t confirm that “The Best of My Love” was the soundtrack for that glorious, green Kentucky summer afternoon, at least I do remember exactly where and when I heard it again, whether it was indeed the second—or seventeenth—time.

I was dancing alone on a November Saturday night in 1998. I had just moved to Chicago barely two months before. A birthday dinner party of a friend-of-a-friend disbanded to the now-defunct Polly Esther’s, which was part of a chain of nightclubs that sprang up in the mid-90s, conceived by marketing executives who recognized the windfall the branding of “retro” would bring. Crudely outfitted with disco balls, tinsel curtains, Polly Esther’s even employed actors in full Tony Manero polyester glory to dance with the middle-aged women visiting the Big City from southwest Missouri or Ohio. I followed the buzzing group with a shrug; the person who had brought me to dinner left claiming a headache, and since I’ll dance to just about anything, it sounded like a good idea. My indifference turned to awe when I saw the club’s square-lit, multi-colored dance floor—yes, just like Saturday Night Fever. I didn’t drink, I didn’t talk to the other partiers, I didn’t really care when one of the hired-gun Tonys made me his unwilling dance partner for an hour—I just danced. When “The Best of My Love” played, I recognized it instantly, but what’s more, as I nestled my body in its intoxicating groove, felt it pulse on my skin, I knew it was the emblem of my new life in this exquisite city of concrete canyons and trees. As I danced, it was as if no one else could hear this siren’s song of living life, living it full and well.

Since then it’s cropped up on other dance floors, when my date hung uncertainly to the side and I, as soon as the song played, began to distinctly not care so much what he thought. Or elsewhere, like blaring out of someone’s car window when I’m trudging by, head stuck in bank balances or unfinished conversations or the cold-sweat dread of someday reaching middle age. I can’t remember exactly where else, but it’s there, the soundtrack of a future in which anything is possible.


Now, as I type, I skip a track ahead on my internet radio station. A blast of horns. Sunshine through clouds. My mother has always said, you’re always wanting more than you’ve got. The summer of ’77 surely wasn’t the first time she admonished me that way, but when I hear this song, I remember how to want what I’ve got.