Go Home, Facebook. You’re Drunk

First things first; condolences to the family, and the entire nation, really, on the death of Colin Powell.

Now, let’s talk social media.This was how the “Drudge Report“ posting appeared;

Forget for a moment the “fully vaxxed“ bit; there’s plenty of inadequate reporters jumping up and down yelling “see! See!, Who need to be reminded that Powell was 84, had blood cancer, and was pretty much a poster case for Covid comorbidities.

No, I’m just wondering if that was the best, most tactful place for Facebook to throw its little “fact check“ blurb?

Point Of Light

My high school and college classmate Pennie Werth died from Covid a couple weeks ago.

Pennie and me go way back – elementary school, anyway. In high school, we did the various high school plays together. And she played piano in the first band I ever got onstage with. It was in tenth grade, for a talent show, and Brenda Bassett, Troy and Dave Claude, Pennie and me played “Don’t Stop” by Fleetwood Mac, to a panel of judges who had last cared about popular music during the swing era, so we did not win, but it was unforgettable and enough fun to get me hooked on playing in bands – a monkey still on my back today.

She went on to be a special ed teacher, and a great one. She lived in the Houston area for many years, but she called me during the later years of the Pawlenty administration to ask about the then-governor’s “Super Teacher” program, which was going to pay high-achieving teachers six-digit salaries to do what they did well. It would have been great – she’d have been nearer her family – but I warned her, correctly, the MFT would have nothing to do with “merit pay”.

Even as a teenager, she had a sharp wit and a huge heart. And she kept it throughout her life.

I wasn’t the only one that noticed. This AP story came out around the time George HW Bush died, three years back (emphasis added):

Mourners had been lining up since 9 a.m. to attend the viewing. Among the first was Pennie Werth-Bobian, 56, a retired elementary school teacher from the Houston suburbs who first met Bush in the 1990s.

A friend cutting the former president’s hair at the Houstonian Hotel alerted Werth-Bobian, who stopped by and struck up a conversation. Bush asked that she return every month or so when he got his hair trimmed.

The second time they met, Werth-Bobian asked what she should call him, thinking “Mr. President” sounded too formal.

“‘Call me George,’” she recalled him saying.

She did.

“That’s what he liked about me: that I talked to him like I talked to my dad,” she said.

They often shared family stories. Many of his tales involved George W. Bush, who she inferred was his favorite. Once, she said, Bush talked about Robin, his 3-year-old daughter he lost to leukemia in 1953, and his eyes welled with tears.

Werth-Bobian was newly married when they met, and asked Bush for advice.

“He said he and Barbara were best friends,” she recalled.

I’m still young enough to see this sort of thing as terribly unusual.  

The Big Beat

Charlie Watts, one of the most estimable drummers and reluctant superstars in rock and roll history, dead at age 80:

A jazz aficionado at heart, Watts helped them become, with The Beatles, one of the bands who took rock ‘n’ roll to the masses in the 60s with classics like (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Get Off My Cloud and Sympathy for the Devil.

Other tributes came from The Sex Pistols’ Glen Matlock, who said he “kept the beat to the soundtrack of our lives”, while Nile Rodgers wrote: “Thanks for all the great music.”

To me, Watts was always the prototype for the likes of Max Weinberg – the guy who keeps the insanity of a kinetic stage show firmly anchored.  Even during my years of ambivalence about the Stones (I was a Who and Kinks guy), Watts mastery of his craft stood out.  

Several crafts, really:

Jagger and Richards could only envy his indifference to stardom and relative contentment in his private life, when he was as happy tending to the horses on his estate in rural Devon, England, as he ever was on stage at a sold-out stadium.

Watts did on occasion have an impact beyond drumming. He worked with Jagger on the ever more spectacular stage designs for the group’s tours. He also provided illustrations for the back cover of the acclaimed 1967 album “Between the Buttons” and inadvertently gave the record its title. When he asked Stones manager Andrew Oldham what the album would be called, Oldham responded “Between the buttons,” meaning undecided. Watts thought that “Between the Buttons” was the actual name and included it in his artwork.

To the world, he was a rock star. But Watts often said that the actual experience was draining and unpleasant, and even frightening. “Girls chasing you down the street, screaming…horrible!… I hated it,” he told The Guardian newspaper in an interview. In another interview, he described the drumming life as a “cross between being an athlete and a total nervous wreck.”

And it occurs to me that as that entire generation of rock stars – McCartney, Starr, Jagger, Richard, Ian Hunter, Ron Wood, and on and on – slide into their eighties, the carnage is going to get pretty intense, one of these days.

Memorial Day

The image I’ve posted is an American cemetery in France, near Verdun. These graves are for soldiers killed in World War I. There are nearly 15,000 graves at the site. Over 53,000 Americans died in combat in World War I and 116,000 Americans in total died as a result of the war. My grandfather fought in World War I and was able to survive the carnage and come home. He was one of the lucky ones. And because he was lucky, so am I.

My grandfather died in 1959, before I was born. I never did get a chance to know him, or to thank him for his service. He did get 40 more years, time enough to marry and raise a family that included my father. I don’t doubt that each of these crosses represents a man who would have loved to have 40 more years to live, to do the things my grandfather was able to do.

We remember those who gave their all on this day precisely because of the enormity of the sacrifice they made. Every one of these crosses represents a human life that was cut short, a dream unrealized. We owe these individuals our gratitude in ways that we cannot adequately express.

The 2020 Bad News Just Keeps Coming

I wasn’t even aware of this last December – but longtime saxophone player in Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band, Alto Reed (born Thomas Cartmell) passed away last December 30. He was 72.

His most famous song with Seger was one of his first – the iconic sax part from 1972’s “Turn the Page”:

But for my money, I’ll go with this reworking of what had been Muscle Shoals guitar player Allan Carr’s ephemeral guitar part on “Mainstreet” – probably my favorite Seger song:

Talent, Being Paid Back With Interest To God

Word’s out that Rush Limbaugh has died of lung cancer. He was 70.

I never met Rush, but I certainly ran into a key part of his legacy, up front. I was 25, and had gotten riffed from my first talk radio gig, at KSTP-AM. I was down – but not out. I had what Don Vogel called the talk radio virus – once you start doing it, it’s so very, very hard to withdraw.

And so I went out on the talk radio job market. And I had some interest – stations in Raleigh, Cleveland, Orlando, New Bedford, the Bay Area, Fall River, Baton Rouge, suburban Chicago, and even New York City had some interest.

Then came Limbaugh.

And over the course of about a year, nearly every small-to-mid-sized talk station in the country that used to hire obstreporous 25 year olds to host graveyard, evening and afternoon talk shows…stopped. Why pay some kid 22-28K, when you could have Limbaugh for the price of eight ad slots an hour, AND record and repeat him in the evening, and maybe on graveyard as well?

So the market for what I wanted to do more than anything in the world pretty much disappeared.

Which isn’t to say that the talk radio market disappeared. From 1988 into the nineties, talk radio, mostly conservative talk, surged. The format went from something like 200 stations in the US in the mid-eighties to at one point close to 1000 on Limbaugh’s network alone, as ailing AM stations from coast to coast switched from country or oldies or polka to talk and started reeling in the profits. There was money in conservative talk! Today, while the shift from broadcast to digital has cut receipts all across the industry, conservative talk, along with some niches like sports, Spanish and of course Public radio are the only ones that have any financial upside at all.

It came as a shock to the media establishment – but even some of the people involved (or claiming to have been involved) in his success didn’t understand what made Rush blow up. In 1991, I interviewed for the program director job at KSTP. I got to the final round – me and one other guy. And one of the interviewers was a consultant, one of hundreds who claimed to have had some role in Rush’s ascendance. He asked me why I thought Rush had caught on so big. “He provided a voice to a lot of people who’d never had one in the media”, I responded. “No”, he said in that “you didn’t get the job” kind of tone, “it’s because he’s irreverant. Nobody cares about politics”. I didn’t get the gig – although the consultant later admitted he was completely wrong. I’ll take a partial win every time.

Because politics – especially giving voice to a vast, silent majority – was the first golden age of conservative talk, culminating with Rush playing a pivotal role in the 1994 Republican Revolution.

I spent those years listening to Rush from the outside, slowly putting that dream from my twenties in mothballs – but listening, carefully, to what made Rush, Rush.

It’s a cliche to say that Limbaugh invented conservative talk. He didn’t – Bob Grant, Joe Pyne and Morton Downey Junior were doing it as far back as the ’70s. But Limbaugh defined its new generation – brash, irreverant, fun, but combining keen knowledge with an unmatched ear for tone and nuance. Rush was a keen-eared entertainer – the entertainment always came with a dose of paleocon wisdom that stuck to your ribs. It’s a cliche to say he had many imitators but no equal – but it’s the truth.

I spent 12 years “in the cold”, in radio terms – I didn’t set foot in a studio during Rush’s glory days. But I listened. And to the extent I learned anything listening to Rush, banked away against the day I could get on the radio again (something I’d completely given up on by about 1995), it was this: have fun. To paraphrase Andrew Breitbart, political motivation is downstream of enjoying yourself – and people who enjoy what they’re doing, as they do great things they believe in, are unbeatable.

Of course, Limbaugh was a two-edged sword. He ushered in a business model that has centralized the money, and the talent – or, often, “talent”, in talk radio. After thirty years of Rush, Beck, Levin, Hannity, Dennis Prager, Laura Ingraham and other talk superstars eating up all the airtime, talk radio’s grapefruit-league and triple-A benches are sparse to none. The only “young” talkers who’ve been working their way up the system have been the ones that mined veins of material that the bigs didn’t cover (Phil Hendrie, TD Mischke), built local niches around the fringe of Rush’s empire (Bob Davis, Justice and Drew), stretched the format (a zillion Christian talkers) to…

…well, King, Brad and Me, who do it for the pure love of the game and a little extra change.

So I owe Rush a lot – for pushing me against my will to develop a different, broader, deeper, better life than I was aiming for as a 25 year old radio (I use this term advisedly and in its literal context) addict, and showing us all how it’s done.

Talent on loan from God, indeed.

The Old School

Two bands I’ve never much cared for are Pink Floyd and the Grateful Dead. Part of it was punky contrarianism; they were both very popular when I was in high school. Naturally, I had to zag away from the zigging crowd.

And yet if I had to pick three guitarists whose style mine most resembles, they’d be David Gilmour and Jerry Garcia (along with Mike Campbell).

I’d never have called myself a huge fan. And yet here I am – someone who wound up learning the guitar from their examples.

We’ll come back to that.

———-

Talk radio and cable TV legend Larry King died over the weekend. He was 87.

“For 63 years and across the platforms of radio, television and digital media, Larry’s many thousands of interviews, awards, and global acclaim stand as a testament to his unique and lasting talent as a broadcaster,” read the statement [from his production company]

“Larry always viewed his interview subjects as the true stars of his programs, and himself as merely an unbiased conduit between the guest and audience,” it continued. “Whether he was interviewing a U.S. president, foreign leader, celebrity, scandal-ridden personage, or an everyman, Larry liked to ask short, direct, and uncomplicated questions. He believed concise questions usually provided the best answers, and he was not wrong in that belief.”

King predated “talk radio” as we have known it since the repeal of the “Fairness Doctrine” by a solid decade and change. He was one of a generation of talkers – Joe Pyne, Tom Leykis, Morton Downey Jr., Bob Grant, and for that matter Don Vogel and Geoff Charles – who definitely had political views, but had to wrap them in enough information and entertainment to not get their stations, and eventually affiliates, licenses challenged with the FCC.

———-

We didn’t have a lot of talk radio in North Dakota when I was growing up.

There was the occasional “talk show”, of course. The boss at my first station did a half-hour interview with some local figure or another, every afternoon during the station’s evening news block. WDAY in Fargo had a morning talk show – “Live Line”, or some such innocuity – that was more or less the same, on weekday mornings. Mostly, they were done to fulfill a station’s “Public Service” requirement – the vague rule that they had to do something to “serve the public” with their federal broadcast license.

I was coming back from a Who concert in Minneapolis in 1982, ridingi shotgun through the night back to Fargo with a friend and fellow Who fan and much better night driver than I, when I first heard Larry King, and a whole different way of doing radio – talking about whatever grabbed the host’s fancy and making it…

…well, “interesting”, yes – but more importantly, injecting his personality into the subject. It was a conversation, more or less – but it was Larry King’s conversation.

I wasn’t bowled over.

Three years later – almost to the day, in fact – I moved to Minneapolis. And via an improbable series of events, I encountered modern talk radio, accidentally getting a job at KSTP-AM when “talk radio” still called itself “News/Talk” in an attempt to try to mix journalistic legitimacy with the chatter.

The station carried King – but I had other things going on in the evening. I didn’t listen much.

Along the way, as I was doing the ongoing pitch for my own talk show, I read one of King’s columns in USA Today. And it had some advice for would-be interviewers that’s stuck with me for the past 34 years.

Never prep for interviews.

It sounds lazy – and I’d be lying if I haven’t used it to rationalize a little endemic laziness. And it’s not right for every interview; if you’re talking with someone about a particularly fraught issue – something where defamation charges could be on the line, for example – then getting the key facts, and your approach to presenting them, straight is very much in order.

But for most interviews? Knowing nothing about the subject or the content, King said, forced you to approach the subject in exactly the same depth as most of your audience has to – from the absolute ground level up.

Of course, the craft comes from moving from that elementary level to one where you can have a meaningful, interesting conversation, quickly enough to make for good radio.

It didn’t always work – over 63 years, what does? But the example he provided – starting an interview small and working up to something you could (often as not) sink your teeth into – was pretty earthshaking for someone who aspired to try to do the same.

So, utterly counterintuitively, while I would never have called myself a huge Larry King fan, he (along with Don Vogel) probably influenced me more than anyone else in the business.

RIP Sid Hartman

Sometimes it seems like everyone in the Twin Cties has a Sid Hartman story.

I had one – 34 years ago. And I can’t believe I never wrote about it in my “Twenty Years Ago Today” series.

I was working as a stringer – an ad-hoc freelance reporter – for WGN in Chicago. My job was to send reports on the game back to WGN – actually, to the show that Dana Carvey, Mike Meyers, John Goodman and Chris Farley lampooned a few years later, in the immortal “Da Bearss” bit – at halftime and at the end of the game.

This game happened to be Tommy Kramer’s best throwing game ever – five touchdowns against Forrest Gregg’s hapless ’86 Packers.

After the game, I walked down into the locker room and was interviewing Kramer, when I saw a mike creep up in front of the quarterback’s face. It was Sid. And he was bogarting the answer to my question.

And I felt a little flattered.

There are other, better Sid stories. This one may be my favorite

A Farewell To King

Neal Peart, drummer for prog-rock and high school sci-fi-nerd-rock mainstays Rush, died of brain cancer last week. He was 67.

He’s iconic for his technical prowess on the skins, of course – and that’s nothing to sneeze at.

And along with those immense technical chops came a taste for really, really big drum kits.

How big?

Big enough to serve as a cultural punchline for people from a certain generation – in this case, one of the kids in Freaks and Geeks, perhaps the only retrospective sit-com my generation is ever going to get. It sure got this right:

Over the years, when looking for drummers in bands, when I hear from people claiming to be influenced by Peart’s style, I can feel the back-ache setting in from a long, kit-heavy load-in and load-out even on the phone.

But for me, the most important thing about Peart – who replaced John Rutsey, who died even longer before his time – had little to do with drum technique.

My favorite drummers have tended to be either the human metronomes (Charlie Watts, Max Weinberg) or power-driving madmen (Keith Moon, Johnny Badanjak, Kenny Aronoff). Technical virtuosi like Peart, and Stuart Copeland of the Police, interested me less for their drum chops than for their place in the chemistry of theit various bands. Copeland took the edge off of some of Sting’s interminal pretension and self-importance…

…and in a genre where bloated pretense was the coin of the realm (Yes, Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, King Krimson), Peart was part of an ensemble that simultaneously wrote some great prog-rock (admittedly a genre I care very little about) and had a rollicking sense of humor on the subject, about the genre, and about themselves:

RIP Neal Peart

Living In Stereo

Ric Ocasek, founder and driving force behind seventies new-wave/pop earth-movers the Cars, died yesterday. He was…

…75? Yep. Apparently he spent the better part of 45 years lying about his age. He was well apparently a member of the Class of 1963, and halfway through his thirties and a veteran of years and years of playing in bars in Cleveland, Columbus, Ann Arbor and finally Boston by the time The Cars, their incandescent first album, landed in 1978.

It’d apparently been a rollercoaster year for Ocasek – inducted into the Rock and Roll Halll of Fame in 2018, in the middle of being separated from his wife of nearly 30 years, onetime supermodel Paulina Porizhkova – a marriage that was the subject of myriad “Beauty and the Beast” jokes when the 45 year old Ocasek and the then-23 year old Porizhkova married in ’89.

Oh, well. We’ll always have the good times.

In Passing

I read the news the other day about the escalating violence along the Indo-Pakistani border, and out of curiosity, went over to Facebook to check in on some friends. Specifically, a former co-worker whose husband was a fighter pilot in the Indian Air Force.

Bit of a good news/bad news situation. Nobody’s been shot down…

…but my former colleague’s husband, a pilot in “Surya Kiran”, the Indian equivalent to the Thunderbirds, was killed during a rehearsal for an exhibition last week.

I met WIng Commander Gandhi a few times, when he was visiting his wife – I was struck by the irony that in the US, it’s usually the military spouse that spends their time overseas; among Indians, it’s the spouse who works in technology that does the globetrotting while the military spouse stays in India and watches the borders).   I was struck – as were many others – by his passion for flying jet fighters, shared with everyone I’ve ever known who took up that vocation (including longtime friend and occasional commenter “Fingers”, who’s so passionate about it he did it in both the Navy and the Air Force).

I’m not so young that I don’t expect people I know, even obliquely, to die unexpectedly.  I’m not so old that it doesn’t shock me a little, still.

Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin passed away yesterday.  She was 78.

This Detroit Free Press obit is uncommonly excellent.

The first real exposure to Franklin I ever got, growing up in the middle of country-western country, was working at my first radio job.  Where I heard “Respect” for the first time – and felt a chill that the human voice could do…that.

My favorite is still “I Never Loved A Man (The Way That I Loved You).

But perhaps my ultimate testimonial?  When my oldest was born, “Aretha” was on the short list of names.

A Bad Week For Writers

Tom Wolfe, author of a shelf full of seminal American journalism and literature, dead at 88.

And later yesterday, word circulated on social media (although I’ve found no confirmation yet in the dead-tree media) that Nick Coleman, longtime columnist (as with all columnists in the Twin Cities, it seems) for both the Strib and the PiPress, had suffered a massive stroke and passed away.

More on that when more details are available.

Billy Graham

He may have been the greatest evangelist in history, claiming to have preached to over 200 million in person over the years.  Billy Graham passed away yesterday at age 99.

Like Charlton Heston, he broke a lot of Big Left’s narratives:

In the 1960s, he ardently opposed segregation, refusing to speak to segregated audiences.

“The ground at the foot of the cross is level,” he once said, “and it touches my heart when I see whites standing shoulder to shoulder with blacks at the cross.”

He was incredibly influential:

Graham also was noted for consulting and praying with every U.S. president from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama, who in April 2010 visited Graham at his mountaintop cabin in North Carolina. He also met with President Harry Truman in what was initially a contentious meeting after Graham spoke to the press, but the two men later viewed the episode as a humorous incident.

Modern times tangent;  I’ll be staying away from Twitter today.  I can imagine the left’s comments about Graham will be down to their usual standard.

A Terrible Year In Music Gets Worse

Pat DiNizio of the Smitherens is dead at 66.

“The who?”

Siddown, kid.

The Smithereens, from Carteret, NJ, need no introduction to anyone who was listening to the radio in the mid-eighties.  Crisp, taut melodic power-pop with just enough garage to make it fun and just enough polish to make it memorable,

And against the stereotype backdrop of eighties music – glossy stylied synth-pop, slick hair metal, and of course the golden age of the Big Arena Rock Anthem, it was defiantly retro, not as a stylistic statement, but for the sheer love of the sound.

“Blood and Roses” was first:

“Only a Memory” was probably my favorite:

“A Girl Like You” was, if memory serves, their biggest hit:

But I’ve learned the hard way; never ask if it could get worse.

News That Eluded Me

I ‘m shocked and a little depressed to see that Caleb Palmiter died over the summer.

“Caleb who?”

Caleb Palmiter has been in a “who’s who” of seminal Twin Cities bands-that-made-it-regionally-big-but-never-broke-out; a founder of the Jayhawks, Bash & Pop, as well as stints in the Mighty Mofos and the Magnolias.

I remember him best for  a couple of bands well before that; The Law and A Single Love, both of which heavily featured his quirky, claw-hammer finger-style guitar style that was too articulate to be Doc Watson but was simpler and less ornate than the obvious comparisons, Richard Thompson and Mark Knopfler.  Whatever you want to call it – I’d catch every gig I could, entranced by his mesmerising guitar style.

Here’s a sample:  he was always this good:

He died of heart failure, says the Strib.  Decades of booze and drugs.  Same old same old.

And now I feel a lot older.

Heartbroken

When I was a kid, the cosmology of the musical world was Pete Townsend, Joe Strummer, Bruce Springsteen, Ray Davies, Tom Petty (Bono and the Edge joined when I was in college)…

…with everyone else trailing far behind.

Strummer passed 15 long years ago; Springsteen is alive and kicking, but it’s not the same without The Big Man and the Phantom.

But now Tom Petty is dead at 66.

When I heard that he’d been found in his Malibu home unresponsive, with a cardiac arrest mere days after the end of what was reputed to be the last Heartbreakers tour, I couldn’t help but think of Charles Schultz, the “Peanuts” comic artist who passed away mere hours after the last panel of his seminal strip ran in papers around the country; their life’s artistic work over, they retired for real, for good.

I wrote about Tom Petty years ago; my abrupt conversion from doubter to fan 38 years ago next month.  I was watching Saturday Night Live, looking to mock and scoff at the singer I’d heard about – for reasons I can’t  begin to remember four decades later.   Buck Henry introduced Petty; by the time they got three counts into “Refugee”, I had reconsidered my skepticism, and become a fan

(NBC blocked access to that original SNL video years ago; someone needs to die in a grease fire.  This one is close):

.  The next morning, after sunday school, I skipped church and ran to the drug store to pick up Damn the Torpedoes; me andMike Aylmer and Matt Anderson and Keri Kleingartner listened to it on a record player in one of the classrooms.  And that night, I sat down with my guitar and started learning every single song, every lick Mike Campbell played; every flourish Benmonth Tench played on the organ; I didn’t so much listen to it as I absorbed it.

Because when you were a little too tall and coulda used a few pounds, and were hardly renowned, it was revelation to know that even the losers – tramps like us – could get lucky sometimes:

It was like a musical flash-bang grenade went off in my brain, blowing it open to a phalanx of new influences:  the Byrds, Del Shannon, the whole canon of post-Beatles American rock and roll – it was all there.

Indeed, given that Petty, like his contemporaries Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger was such a traditionalist, it’s hard to remember sometimes what a radical departure from the 1970s’ mainstream he was.  Music radio lumped him in with the New Wave (as they did with many acts and artists that didn’t fit neatly into 1970s’ radio formats, from Dire Straits to AC/DC to The Police); in a half-decade of American pop music dominated by disco, sixties-holdovers from the “singer/songwriter” genre like James Taylor and Jackson Browne, arena acts like Styx and REO Speedwagon, and top-40 machines like Fleetwood Mac, Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles, the idea of a singer doing perfectly crafted homage to the Byrds, Stax/Volt (Duck Dunn sits in on bass on Damn the Torpedoes’ “You Tell Me”) and all that was great about early-sixties American rock and roll, and turning in into something vital, funny, crisp, fierce, was kind of radical.

It sure felt radical at the time.


His cardiac arrest yesterday was Petty’s worst medical problem, obviously – but it  wasn’t his first medical issue, as he relates in this stunning 1985 version of “The Waiting”:

And as the years unwound, he had the same personal issues a lot of us fans had when we grew up; the girl who Petty told not to do him like that, did him like that in 1999, leading to one of his best albums (and the one from which he never played anything live), Echo, full of world-weary anthems about profound loss:

But maybe my favorite thing Petty did? He wore that Dixie chip on his shoulder with pride – and wrote one of the best songs every about that chip:

And that – the idea of putting the chip on my own shoulder out there in the form of music, the one art form I ever failed to completely fail at – led to one of my life’s great adventures, writing music and playing it for people, an adventure that’s still going on today.

If you told me to take a Tom Petty song to a desert island, it’d be…well, “Even the Losers”. But I’d sneak “Southern Accents” along under the table anyway.

UPDATE: Mr. D adds his own musical obit.

UPDATE 2: Tor Sorenson, who plays bass in “The Supreme Soviet of Love” and “Elephant in the Room“, also has a tribute.

George Barron

When people talk about what is wrong with American education today, at the end of the day most of the answers come back as some variation of “there aren’t more teachers out there like George Barron used to be”.

George Barron was my high school chemistry teacher…sort of.  He passed away late last month.

I say he was “sort of” my chemistry teacher because it didn’t really go well.  I mention this lest you think that this is going to turn into one of those Pollyanna-ish stories about teachers – Stand and Deliver or Mister Holland’s Opus or Watch Misplaced Teacher Turn The Meth-Heads Into Math-Heads or whatever –  where some plucky teacher triumphs over the recalcitrant kid (and the system that keeps them down, natch) and teaches everyone the Big Lesson by the end of the story.   It’s not.

Well, not directly.  Indirectly, it very much is.  But we’ll come back to that.

A solid generation before I took his chemistry class, George Barron was – or so I was told – a Navy dive-bomber pilot.  He didn’t talk about the war – none of the small group of teachers that were WWII veterans ever did – although he did make sure we knew that, during the war, he trusted his life to a tailgunner not much older than we.  Us, on the other hand?  He didn’t trust us to fetch donuts from the bakery. We had a way to go before we got there.

Judging by old high school annuals, Mr. Barron got out of the Navy, came to Jamestown, and became a chemistry teacher.  I know he was teaching when my father was a student, back in the fifties; he was still there when my dad came back to teach in the mid-sixties, and he was still teaching in 1979 when I was a sophomore in high school.  His legend preceded him; you learned a lot from his classes (Jamestown High School produced an inordinate number of doctors and scientists in those days, all of them alums of Barron’s classes), but he was tough.  .

I was not.  Not academically, at least.  I’d spent 9th and 10th grade bored out of my skull; English was a mind-numbing reiteration of grammar classes; History was taught by football coaches who had read less of the material than I had; but for languages (three years of German), Orchestra and Stage Band, I had pretty well checked out.

Which wasn’t a great start.

Toward the end of my sophomore year, as we were signing up for next year’s classes, we got a mimeographed sheet from Mr. Barron explaining that:

  • People who wanted to go to college took Chemistry.  People who wanted to go to Vocational school took “Practical Chemistry” from Barron’s associate, Mr. Scherbenske.  People who wanted neither, took neither.
  • He was tough, and made no excuses for it.  He had standards, and if you didn’t measure up, you’d get an “F”.

The page included a list of students who’d succeeded, and students who’d dropped the class – which struck me as a little odd at the time.  But I signed up anyway.

Of course, on top of everything else my junior year, Chemistry hit me like a truck.  Oh, Mr. Barron’s class hit everyone like a truck – but I was really, truly not ready for that.   I was disorganized, didn’t really have the math down, and just could not keep up.

I’d love to say there was an inspirational speech, or some moment standing at the blackboard trying to calculate a reaction where I had a blinding flash of epiphany that would be presented in a movie with a montage of late-night studying, slow improvement, and cutaway shots of Mr. Barron’s implacable grimace slowly softening into the hint of a smile.

But that’s Hollywood.  Me?  I cratered.  After my first six-weeks’ grade (a solid “F”), I dropped the class.  No, I didn’t switch to study hall; I managed to talk my way into Latin I; I started seven weeks behind the rest of the class, and caught up by the end of the semester.

My other classes?  I jumped from the C’s and D’s and occasional F’s of my first two years of high school to mostly A’s and B’s.  This was also my first year at the radio station – and I threw myself into that as well, and learned a lot of radio by the end of the year.  Part of it was that I was finally taking classes I cared about, and taking them from teachers who actually cared about the material themselves – my dad’s speech class, writing and a few others in particular.

Part of it was to not only live down, but expunge the stench of “quitting”.

Toward the end of my junior year, a sophomore friend handed me a copy of Mr. Barron’s mimeograph for the next year’s class. My stomach fell down my leg in an icy ball of confusion; I was listed among the kids who’d dropped the class.

My first reaction was to hunt him down and make him eat a bunson burner.  But the girl who’d sat behind me in class – let’s call her Lori – said “he’s just putting you out there as an example of a smart kid who didn’t gel with the class”.  It may have been BS, but I felt a little better.

The main point being, I spent the rest of that year, and the next, living that scarlet “Q” down.  And through four years of college, where I averaged over 20 credits a semester.  And the decades since, where in trial after trial, “don’t quit” has been the only real palatable solution.

And I owe that to Mr. Barron.

His “practical chem” colleague, another former Barron student, and my dad’s chess partner, Mr. Scherbenske, wrote a memorial to Mr. Barron in my hometown paper that sums the man up pretty well.

RIP Jerry Pournelle

I’ve never much cared for science fiction.  Not sure why – it just never took for me.

The exception was always Jerry Pournelle – pretty much the only person who ever wrote sci-fi that ever grabbed me.

That goes back almost forty years, to reading, among others, Lucifer’s Hammer – a book that probably grabbed me in the same way The Walking Dead does today.

There was more; fifteen years ago, during the heyday of the blog, Pournelle had an influential site – and he read and frequently llinked to Shot In The Dark; I’m not sure if any of you in my audience today found me through Pournelle, but I know he gave me a good boost in traffic back in the day.

Anyway – rest in peace, Jerry Pournelle.

RIP Greg Thomas

It was at Holes for Heroes back in 2016 that Brad Carlson and me got to interview Greg Thomas, a man in Montgomery, MN who, when given a terminal diagnosis and mere weeks to live, decided to restore a crumbling country church.

His story was spellbinding – it was one of the most interesting interviews I’ve ever done.  And it chronicled a quest that had gone on (if I recall correctly) for seven years, at that time.

Which isn’t bad for a guy who’d been given, as I recall, three months to live.

As we parted ways, I told him to come by next year and update us.  He said he hoped he could – but he’d just gotten more bad news about his prognosis, and would be lucky to be around in months, rather than a full year.

He was finally right.

But then we all are, eventually.

Thanks for the amazing story, Greg, RIP.