Many podcasts ask you to rate and review in the various podcast places, but I thought I’d use this post to point to some of the stuff I listen to when I’m out on walks and the like. If I put it here, trust that I recommend it highly.

Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell are my go-to folks for left-wing outrage. Capable journalists and engaging hosts. The podcasts are just the audio versions of their TV shows, but that’s fine. I used to listen to both of these just about every weekday, but I’ve dialed it back to two or three times per week, because times are hard and my outrage needs more effective channels. Back when times weren’t so bloody fraught, Maddow would make cocktails on air every now and then, and punctuate some shows with a segment called ‘Best New Thing In The World’ which was always nice. And then we got DJT and it’s not like that anymore. (about 45 minutes each)

Friday Night Comedy from BBC Radio 4 Alternate series of The Now Show, The News Quiz, Dead Ringers and random BBC audio comedy. The Now Show is topical political humor with sketches, music, and pointed commentary. Skewers both left and right. The News Quiz is a scripted panel game show. Kinda like Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, but shorter with a UK focus, natch. Dead Ringers is comedic takes on a number of British radio shows and a lot of the humor assumes you recognize the source material. I’d listened for several years before I actually knew who Diane Abbott was. (30 minutes)

Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me is NPR’s weekly news quiz – I’ve been listening to it for most of the 20+ years it’s been on the air. Obviously a US bent on these things. (45 minutes)

Attention Engineer – Musician Laura Kidd (formerly She Makes War, now Penfriend) interviews mostly other musicians about the creative process and being creative in these times. The first episodes were recorded in late 2019 and didn’t predict how crazy stuff would get. Check out one of her gorgeous new tracks, Black Car (The list of her podcast guests is on the right).
(Usually over an hour)

And if I have my act together, I’ll do another one of these next week.

Given the hundreds, possibly thousands, of audio cassettes I’ve purchased in my lifetime, it’s a little bit surprising that I didn’t know the inventor’s name until reading his obituaries this week. (I’ll note also, that Dhr Ottens was also on the team that developed the compact disc. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve owned 10,000 CDs since buying my first one in 1987.)

I was led down the rabbit hole of mix tapes by Jim and Mary Glaser, a pair of NYC transplants to Los Angeles who worked at American Pie Records with me when I was in high school. They probably made me a dozen in ‘84 and ‘85 that I wore out. Those tapes included my introductions to Frank Zappa and Lou Reed and dozens of other artists. And when I went off to SF State in the fall of ‘85, those tapes went with me and were my constant companions for the next four years (and beyond).

In a lot of ways Jim and Mary were the embodiment of cool for me. I think they’d come west to make it in rock and roll, but it wasn’t to be and they moved back to NYC around the time I moved to San Francisco. Occasionally they come to mind, but sadly their names are too common to provide useful search results. The mix tapes I made for friends for over a decade after that (and then the mix CDs) extended their philosophy of mixing both humor and great rock and roll. I developed my own philosophy as well, well before Nick Hornby expounded on the topic in High Fidelity. But that only proves that I wasn’t the only geek in the 90s making mix tapes. Far from it.

And then there’s Norton Juster. I’ve only read those first two books of his, The Phantom Tollbooth and The Dot and the Line, but I fell in love with them when I was first falling in love with books. I can tell from my copy of Dot that I bought it in the 90s (the price of 1.50 written in pencil, but with a heavy hand, indicates the source was probably Moe’s in Berkeley rather than Austen Books in San Francisco). The sticker inside that reads Ex Libris with my name, printed in color, means that I left it in a box with a friend, or with my sister, when I moved to Europe in 2002 and collected it some time later.

I bought my current copy of Tollbooth around 2007 at the same time I bought a copy for my nieces who were just getting to the first right age for it. And rereading it now, I’m still at the right age.

My earliest memory of Dot was the Chuck Jones cartoon that was in rotation with Looney Tunes on one or another of the other cartoon programmes that occupied my weekday afternoons on days I didn’t go to Hebrew school. I watched a lot of cartoons but that one stuck with me. A few days ago, I could only find a super-low resolution version on YouTube, but today, there’s this lovely 1040p upload. Take ten minutes to enjoy it in all its 1965 glory.

In the period when I was separated from my first wife, she dated a guy who in a number of ways was everything that I wasn’t. I was quite sure at the time that I was the squiggle in the story and he was a line who could do amazing things. Someone at the time, who knew more about him than I did pointed out that he was very much a squiggle. I still found myself jealous, but I also took the time to appreciate my own vectors. And how much dot, line, and squiggle we all had in us.

I honestly don’t know where I’m going with this. These stories still move me for reasons I can’t quite pinpoint. The lessons Milo learns on his journey through the tollbooth resonate – I still find value in not jumping to conclusions (though I still do it) and in fighting off the easy repetitive tasks that take the time I could be doing something worthwhile (for a wide range of definitions of worthwhile). It’s strange, because Juster created a quest in the Arthurian tradition with a hero who may not realize what a fantastic boon he’s returned with. Simple as a cup on the shelf but still full of mystery.

I spent the second half of 1989 traveling in Europe after finishing up (most of) my BA. I was 22 and after four years in San Francisco, had stowed all my stuff (including a couple hundred CDs, LPs, and tapes) back at my parents’ house in LA before boarding a flight with no music playback device at all. I traveled for six weeks with a friend and after he came back to the US for a job, I really needed some music. I bought a cassette walkman and some tapes. Maybe this blog entry will look back at the dozen or so albums that soundtracked that summer and autumn for me. But, because Cherry Red has graced the world with a 2-CD/1-DVD repackaging of The Stars We Are, I’m going to start there.

The first single, Tears Run Rings, had already been on Live 105’s rotation before I left the states, but I don’t think I’d heard the rest of it. I may have, though, because the interwebs tell me the album came out in 1988. I’m pretty sure I bought my tape of it at a market in Istanbul, but that might be because the song She Took My Soul In Istanbul is so tied up with the week I spent there.

The rockers like the title track, Tears Run Rings, and Bittersweet pull the listener in, but that’s only a part of the skill set Almond brings to the table. We also get some almost cabaret-style pieces (Only the Moment, Your Kisses Burn). To borrow a line from Nina Simone, there are even show tunes for shows that still haven’t been written (Kept Boy, Istanbul).

Aside from Tears Run Rings, what roped me into the album was the macabre knowledge that it contained the result of Nico’s last recording session. I was turned on to the Velvet Underground a few years before and had collected all their albums to that point and started delving into the solo work. Nico’s voice, even when ravaged on late live albums, insinuates itself the way few voices do. And there’s really nothing like the way she slips this between your ears:

I’ll make a fire there in your heart / Made not of love, but only hate
And for the fuel will be your soul / An inferno to consume you whole.

Shudder.

Almond’s cover of Gene Pitney’s hit Something’s Gotten Hold Of My Heart let the world know that he had the chops. It’s a tossup whether his solo vocal, or the duet with Pitney himself is the better. Initial pressings of the album had the solo version, but it was replaced by the duet which was itself a hit. This deluxe edition relegates the solo version to the CD of remixes.

Almond and Gene Pitney, 1989

Because my first experience of the album was the cassette, I never considered the LP’s closing song She Took My Soul in Istanbul to be the end of the album. Istanbul slides neatly into The Frost Comes Tomorrow (originally the b-side of Something’s Gotten Hold of My Heart) and closer Kept Boy.

Kept Boy is something like a demented outtake from Sunset Boulevard in which the male voice admits to being after the riches of the older woman keeping him, until he realizes she’s poisoned him. While not as rich a song as others on the album, it features Agnes Bernelle as the other voice. Bernelle, whose family left Germany in the 30s and settled in London, earned renown during WWII for broadcasts to Germany and to the resistance. After the war, she acted and recorded cabaret songs.

The first CD in the set concludes with three B-sides, Everything I Wanted Love To Be, King of the Fools, and Real Evil. Disc 2 collects the various remixes including three versions of Tears Run Rings and two of Bitter-Sweet. There’s nothing that wasn’t available at the time of release – nothing live or pulled out of the archives or recovered from the cutting room floor. Gorgeous stuff, all of it, but the liner notes mention shows from ‘87 that featured about half of the album’s songs, and a show in ‘86 that featured an entirely different version of the title track. Some of those goodies would definitely have made my heart skip a beat.

In last week’s Economist (13-19 February, 2021) Bartleby gives us a month by month set of memories of the past year. As if we ourselves hadn’t already lived through it.

The thing is, memories of learning Zoom etiquette and how to mute ourselves and others in meetings ceased being funny a long time ago. The sameness of days working from home has long since ceased to be news, and the columnist pointing to June as the month when we started feeling ‘Groundhog Day Syndrome’ doesn’t make it any more ancient history.

Canceled holidays and the rollercoaster of lockdowns followed by eased restrictions followed by more lockdowns – well, almost all readers of the Economist know what that’s like. And we’re all suffering from the continued effects of the entitled thinking that a period eased restrictions means that the world with Covid is actually safer. The fact that we’re still dealing with this shit means that we as an office-dwelling species don’t get it and never have gotten it. I’m not the first to say that eased restrictions means there’s room in the ER or A&E for you.

I have expat friends who have long complained that a large segment of the population of this country don’t wash their hands. A survey in May (well into the pandemic) indicated that half the Dutch hadn’t gotten the message. Have they yet? Who knows? But our infection numbers go reliably up when restrictions are eased and reliably down when they’re not.

I got on my high horse at the beginning of this thing and said (only to my wife who pays for the Economist subscription and understands the nature of the system far better than I do, and alluded to it on this blog) that the only way to conquer this thing was to go on a war footing, put in the restrictions and move manufacturing to getting PPE and support to medical staff. ‘Yes, the economy will take a hit, but then we can get back up and moving again.’

But I don’t understand human nature any better than anyone else. I know I still forget a mask sometimes and feel ridiculous about going back for one, but I bloody well do it. I don’t understand the refusal of our societies to support the front line folks first (medical, educational, retail). I don’t understand why there’s a question about how quickly to vaccinate teachers, nurses, and supermarket workers. If I did, I’d be an economist or a financier, and not a tech writer.

I wasn’t the first to note that DJT would have won the election had he lifted one finger to handle the pandemic with sense and reliance on experts. Is there a blessing in the fact that he didn’t and is therefore no longer president (his own rants notwithstanding)? I don’t know. Half a million dead in the US might prefer that he’d just once acted in the interest of the country and not his own. But because he couldn’t, here we are.

The Economist column concludes with the suggestion, ‘Perhaps at some point in 2021 Bartleby will be back on the London Underground, crammed like a sardine while waiting for the platform to clear at Earl’s Court. Suddenly social isolation doesn’t seem so bad after all.’

For much of the working world, the thought of being on a crowded commuter platform (or movie theatre or concert or fast-food joint or anywhere else that keeping distance is rendered impossible) isn’t a point of humor but the opening salvo of an anxiety attack. For another large part of the working world, that anxiety and the associated Covid risk are facts of life that won’t be letting up any time soon.

After the minor MTV hit that was Mexican Radio, Stan Ridgway left Wall of Voodoo and a couple of years later released his first solo album, 1983’s The Big Heat on IRS Records, the same label that had released Wall of Voodoo’s first three releases. I’m sure I have wonderful things to say about that album. I wore out the grooves on my cassette of it, for certain. In 1989, Ridgway moved to Geffen Records for his second solo album, Mosquitos, a copy of which has found its way to me for the first time in about 20 years. And it holds up. His music always had the feel of the best noir fiction and musically he pulls on the same devices that make up the atmospheres of Dashiell Hammett novels and Bogart movies.

Thematically, Mosquitos works over the same characters, low-lifes with pessimistic outlooks (Can’t Complain) and guys who think the girl is in it for them (Peg and Pete and Me).

In general the whole album is of a piece. Some of it upbeat (Goin’ Southbound, the aforementioned Last Honest Man), some of it more atmospheric (bookends Heat Takes a Walk/Lonely Town and A Mission In Life). 1989 was a weird year, though, for this kind of album. Two years later, he made his last album for the majors, Partyball. Alas, Geffen put out the made-for-Doctor-Demento track I Wanna Be A Boss as the first single. And people who’d followed Ridgway for a few years said, What the hell?

He continues to make great music, but fell off the radar for me at that point. It might be a case of those being the albums I heard when I was that impressionable age. But I absolutely recommend all three of those first solo albums.

While Mosquitos isn’t available on Bandcamp, there’s a veritable scad of Ridgway goodies (including live recordings from the period) available his BC page.

Discogs links: The Big Heat / Mosquitos / Partyball