Ruben Rosario

This blog tangled with former Pioneer Press columnist Ruben Rosario a time or two – and applauded him a few times as well.

I’ve also urged prayers for what seemed like insurmountable health problems – 13 years ago.

He’s passed away at age 70:

Condolences and prayers for his family and friends.

Everywhere, All The Time

I had no idea if I had any musical talent at all when I was in fourth grade. But one day, a string quintet came over from the high school – and I was intrigued.

I knew playing violin would be a problem – people would beat me up. And the bass looked like an awful lot of instrument to haul around. So I settled on the cello.

And I played through the next eight years, from fourth grade till graduation (enter through college, and let’s be honest, I can still crank out a few tunes).

The Jamestown schools had a pretty big orchestra program:  five elementary schools, the junior high, and the high school. The program involved everyone from 10-year-old beginners sawing away on half size violin, all the way up to the occasional musical prodigy who went off to major in music.

And the whole thing was run by one teacher – Donna Nannenga. 

I was a pretty obnoxious teenager – certainly too much so to be impressed by that at the time. But over the years, as I’ve seen, what goes into teaching – and especially into teaching music, one of the more complicated disciplines – I’ve retrospectively had my mind blown.

In my case? I went from playing “Blue Bells of Scotland“ in fourth grade, to second chair at Alls State orchestra my senior year. And she was the only teacher – really, just about the only formal musical training – I had until I was 18.

And I was just one of what had to have been between 70 and 100 kids in the orchestra program at any given time, from age 10 through 18. 

And, of course, it was from learning the cello that I was able to teach myself guitar, bass, mandolin, and everything else I’ve been able to crank out a tune on over the years.

And I was far from the only one:

Donna Nannenga teaches violin, viola and cello at James River Correctional Center. She taught 75 students at the prison from 2002-15 when she stopped counting and estimates the number is now closer to 100.

“Once a teacher, always a teacher,” Nannenga said.

Some of her students were in school choirs, bands or orchestras while others have no musical background at all, she said. Her goal is for the student to reach a high school orchestra level for string instruments, she said.

“I take them no matter what kind of musical background they have,” she said. “I teach them just like I did my students in school with the same books and materials.”

As happens so often in life, I was just wondering how she was doing the other day, when I got the news that she’d passed away. I always wanted to thank her.

I guess I need to stop waiting on these things. 

Bob Beckwith

Bob Beckwith was the FDNY firefighter who stood with then-President Bush during one of the moments in my life when I was proudest to be an American.

It occurs to me there’s a generation for whom “FDNY” isn’t instantly mentally associated with tragedy, heroism, and that particular moment 22 years ago.

Do It Yourself

Tomorrow is the 65th anniversary of “The Day The Music Died” – the plane crash in Clear Lake IA that killed Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and Jiles “Big Bopper” Richardson.

I’m a huge music trivia nerd – and even I was unaware of the impact Holly made, not in terms of songs, but in how rock and roll was made.

Buddy Holly’s impact on music in his 22 years is scarcely understood even by a lot of serious fans of music, but indeed of Holly himself – myself included.

I learned a lot from this writeup:

In many ways it’s a shame that Buddy spent most of his short career fighting for the things that would help rock and roll music to thrive in the decades to come.

They told him only producers can produce music, not musicians.

He proved them wrong.

They told him that a four piece band consisting of two guitars (rhythm and lead), a stand up bass, and drums wasn’t enough instrumentation to create a hit record.

He proved them wrong

They told him that songwriters only wrote songs, and musicians only played music. You can’t do both.

He proved them wrong.

They told him he would never become a rock and roll star because you had to be good looking like Elvis Presley. Plus he could never make it by wearing glasses.

He proved them wrong.

They told him orchestral arrangements and double tracking vocals in rock music could never work.

He proved them wrong.

They told him that no one from a one horse town by the name of Lubbock, Texas could ever become famous. You had to be from a big city like Los Angeles or New York.

He proved them wrong.

They told him that no musician had the right to question a record label about copyrights, promotion, or ownership of one’s music.

He proved them wrong.

Don McLean was a little wrong – the music died when the iPod was invented.

Anyway – here’s celebrating Buddy Holly:

By the way, September 7 would have been Holly’s 88th birthday .

Bach To The Future

Peter Schickele – better known to decades of music geeks as the author of the “PDQ Bach” music history saga – has passed away. He was 88.

It occurs to me that calling. him the “Spike Jones of Music Satire” depends on a generation of people who know who Spike Jones was.

“They were playing a record in the store,” Mr. Schickele recalled in a 1997 interview for the NPR program “All Things Considered.” “It was a sappy love song. And being a 9-year-old, there’s nothing worse, of course. But all of a sudden, after the last note of the song, there were these two pistol shots.”

That song, he learned, was Mr. Jones’s “A Serenade to a Jerk.”

“I’ve always felt that those pistol shots changed my life,” Mr. Schickele continued. “That was the beginning of it all for me.”

Maybe the “Weird Al Yankovic of Classical Music”?

The music majors in college were all into PDQ Bach – and I eventually figured out why. He really, really did classical music satire – perhaps the most esoteric form of satire there is short of lampponing ancient Greeks in ancient Greek – really, really well. He not only nailed the punch line – the funny jab – but the setup, the keen understanding of the milieu he was sending up.

This one made me laugh so hard I had a hard time breathing.

Maybe you had to be there. But as I was there, there are no regrets.

One of the things that gave me the odd chuckle was Schickele’s constant North Dakota references. Clearly the guy knew something about the state – but he was a New Yorker.

An accomplished bassoonist, the young Mr. Schickele played in his local symphony, the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra, when he was in high school.

Years later, he would pay tribute to his North Dakota roots by bestowing upon himself, in his role as P.D.Q.’s earthly representative, an august academic title: professor of musical pathology at the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople. (There really is a Hoople, N.D. There really isn’t a University of Southern North Dakota there — or anywhere.)

So I learned something new:

RIP, Peter Schickele. .

Do It Yourself

Back in high school, there were two radio stations in Jamestown. Up above White Drug was KEYJ, my station, a little 1,000 watt AM station whose boss, Bob Richardson, always made a point of hiring local kids and showing them how to do radio.

Across First Avenue, above the jewelry store, was KSJB and KSJM. KSJB was a 5,000 watt station at 600 kilocycles – which meant it covered six states and two Canadian provinces, and broadcast couintry music and lots and lots of farm market reports. It was a big station, and – at least when I was a kid – hired pretty serious air talent for the region. High school kids? Never.

KSJM, at 93.7 FM, was a little FM pop station. It was “automated”, which is the norm in radio stations today (most music radio uses computers to splice together commercials, music and “voice-tracked” dropins from “disk jockeys” who’ve never jockeyed a disk), but was not common back then, done with reel to reel tapes and carousels of cartridge machines and clunky analog computers. I rarely listened to KSJM when I was a kid – there were much better rock stations available, even in that part of North Dakota.

Also back in high school in Jamestown, everyone knew the Ebertz family. They’d gone to high school with my dad, who had in turn taught a generation of two of Ebertz kids and cousins. One of them ran a cafe that was an institution in Jamestown.

One day, sometime about my senior year of high school or freshman year of college, I heard that Pat Ebertz had finagled his way into doing some disk-jockeying on KSJM. It wasn’t much – a few hours on weekends – but it was a fun little burst of local radio. And as someone who’s done a lot of “do it yourself radio” over the years and today, the idea grabbed me.

I moved to the Twin Cities, and inadvertently slipped back into radio. And it was a few years later – probably 1991 – when I was at KDWB when the jock I was producing, “Michael Knight”, was on the phone with his old buddy, Pat Ebertz, from his old station, KNOX in Grand Forks. We talked for a bit – he’d stayed in the biz.

I was just about to leave it, actually – within a few weeks, I’d bail on KDWB, and not set foot in a radio station for another 11 years.

But Pat made the move to the Cities a few months later, latching on at KDWB, where he spent years as a producer and sidekick for Dave Ryan. Being music radio, fashions change and jobs come and go fast – but Pat had a long run at the 101.3. I heard he’d moved to Saint Cloud and was at the Top40 station there, and then recently that he’d latched on with Tom Barnard. We hadn’t talked in decades.

Someone sent me this yesterday:

My condolences to the whole Ebertz clan. From another radio do-it-yourselfer.

Shane MacGowan

Well, I’ll be. Something can kill Shane MacGowan.

MacGowan, the lead singer of the legendary Irish punk-folk band The Pogues, passed away overnight. He was 65, going on 110.

He was a Keith Richards/Ozzy Ozbourne-level drinker, a brilliant songwriter, an irreplaceable bandleader…

…and, like most British punks of the era, full of political hot air:

“We just wanted to shove music that had roots and is just generally stronger and has more real anger and emotion, down the throats of a completely pap-oriented pop audience,” he told NME in 1983 as the band was getting off the ground.

He frequently wrote about Irish culture and nationalism, as well as the experiences of the Irish diaspora — including his support of the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

“I was ashamed I didn’t have the guts to join the IRA — and the Pogues was my way of overcoming that,” MacGowan admitted in Julien Temple’s 2020 documentary “Crock of Gold: A Few Rounds with Shane MacGowan.”

MacGowan was celebrated by many of his peers as one of the greatest songwriters of his generation. But he was also known for his heavy boozing, often leaving him stumbling and slurring his words at shows. 

Love the art, ignore the artist.

And at their best, the Pogues were one of the things that made the early-mid eighties such a blast

So what was “their best”?

I’d start with the title cut of their 1985 classic album, If I Should Fall From Grace With God,

Featuring the shreddingest Mandocello solo in rock history.

I’ve always been partial to this one, from the previous album, Rum, Sodomy and the Lash:

This one pops up on the NARN once in a while – and likely will again soon:

Most Americans who are familar with the Pogues at all know them from this, a song that is to Christmas music what Die Hard is to Christmas movies:

MacGowan’s been suffering healthl issues for a while now, and was reportedly wheelchair-bound since 2015.

Probably a decade ago, a story circulated that scientists were studying some of the most legendarily indestructible rock stars – Keith Richards, Ozzy Ozbourne, MacGowan and a few others – to try to figure out how they could survive decades of chemical abuse at a level that’d kill entire 70s funk bands or squads of Marines, and keep on going.

It’d seem they found a data point.

Mark from Saint Louis Park

One of the great lessons Don Vogel taught me when I was working as his call screener was that there are four types of callers on radio talk shows;

  • Boring callers: People whose calls, mostly agreeing with you, didn’t help the show go anywhere. Inexperienced hosts figured having someone on the air was better than nothing – but an experienced host doesn’t need callers – and can do better than the boring ones. Don wanted me to politely turn them down.
  • Average callers: Regular people making regular points. Put them on as time permits.
  • Crazy callers: They’re a crapshoot. Sometimes crazies kill the mood. Sometimes, they accelerate it. They’re a judgment call – one of the things that separates a good call screener from someone who just takes calls and types names into a computer.
  • Great callers: The ones who had great points, and made them in a way that didn’t just help the flow of the show, but improved it. “Get them on all the time, every one”, Don said. It’s harder than it sounds. Was I any good? Well, I learned to pick out Tommy Mischke’s voice when he was still “The Phantom Caller”, and got him to the front of the queue every time he called – which played a solid role in launching his career. So yeah. I was good. Sometimes.

“Mark from Saint Louis Park” was one of the great callers over the past decade or so at AM1280. How great? He’s the only regular caller I’ve ever written an obit for [1].

We got word on Saturday that Mark – real name Mark Rice – had passed away. I met only met Mar in person once, but even face to face I recognized his voice instantly. 

Mark’s incisive intelligence and keen understanding of whatever the conversation was about made him a standout caller, even when he occasionally disagreed with us. “When Mark from SLP calls, just put him on the call board”, we told our producers.  No need to screen him, having him on the air always made the show better.  

Mark was one of the few regular callers that was a subject of conversation off the air himself.  That may not sound like a big deal; trust me, it is.  

My condolences and prayers for all his friends and family, from all his radio fans.   He is missed.  

[1] I’ve long since lost track of “Steve from Roseville” of my KSTP days, who popped up as “Steve from Plymouth” once on the NARN in probably 2006. He’d be the other one to rate a full blown memorial.

Dick Butkus

Another thing I missed when I was out of the country – the death of the only sports figure I ever actually wanted to be.

Dick Butkus, Chicago Bears legend and the man who defined the position of middle linebacker, died last week at the age of 80:

A ferocious tackler drafted out of the University of Illinois, Butkus was an imposing force as the Bears’ middle linebacker for his nine NFL seasons in the 1960s and 1970s, and made eight Pro Bowls.

Butkus thought his intensity on the field was simply how the game should be played, according to an article on the Bears’ website.

“I thought that was the way that everybody should have played, but I guess they didn’t because they were claiming that I had a special way of playing,” he said when asked about his ferocity, according to the article.

No one remembers when I became a Chicago Bears fan – it was almost certainly before I knew what football was – but as long as anyone could remember, I knew who Dick Butkus was.

And while I was always too tall, for my weight and build completely wrong for football, literally, the only athletic ambition I ever had was to be a middle linebacker like the great one himself

Everything Nice And Rough

Tina Turner is passed away yesterday, in her home 83.

It was about this time forty years ago that radio programmers were asking “Tina who?

I mean, she popped on on “oldies” radio.

She had some staples there, in fact:

But Turner was…

…well, in her forties. No woman in the Billboard Chart era had ever had a #1 hit at anywhere near her age.

And so everyone – me included – was kind of gobsmacked when perhaps the greatest comeback in the history of popular music happened about this time forty years ago; 43 year old Tina Turner climbed back from R&B obscurity to the top of the charts – the oldest woman to ever top the Billboard charts at the time, with a series of songs from “Private Dancer”, an album cut with a who’s who of the best sidemen in the business:

Dolly Parton, Shirley Bassey and Cher all had hits after age 50 – loooong after Turner did it.

The story of the intervening years was a catalog of horrors…

…literally the stuff of movies. If you’re not aware of the, uh, turbulence in Turner’s life from 1960 to 1976…

…the movie is one of the better music biopics ever.

Anyway – I loved a lot of things about Tina Turner – but perhaps most of all, the fact that Turner danced with the one that brung her, as it were – she never forgot the sheer power of a hot, fast, sweaty rave-up.

Rest in peace, Tina Turner.

There Were No Illusions On The Summer Side Of Life

I get the impression that Gordon Lightfoot knew time was short when he recorded his last album, three years ago. At 81, it wasn’t a big stretch.

It’s the best album he’s done in quite a while – done solo, just Lightfoot on an acoustic guitar, solo, his voice nowhere near it’s strength and power of his glory days, but still very much him. And it was a surprise – in 2016, he famously retired from songwriting, saying it’d caused a lot of problemls with, and for, the people closest to him in his life.

Lightfoot’s best work wrestles with one of those most troublesome human emotions – regret. Popular culture’s current affectation is to “have no regrets” – which is only possibly if you live a life with no failures, mistakes or risks. Like Warren Zevon’s final album, The Wind, it sounds like a guy wrapping up accounts for a life spent swinging for the fence – and leaving a few broken bits and pieces in his wake.

It’s a wonderful end to a wonderful career.

I tried to figure out where to start writing something that I haven’t written dozens of times before, with a long-overdue watching of If You Could Read My Mind, the 2020 documentary about his sixty-plus year career, life and legacy.

The documentary opens, rather pointedly, with Lightfoot and his third wife watching him peforming “For Loving Me”, a semi-comic cad’s anthem that, it turned out, wasn’t nearly fictional enough to have not affected many of Lightfoot’s relationships over the years.

He’s visibly uncomfortable.

“Turn it off. I hate that f*cking song”, he says, face wrinkled in disgust that, we learn in the next 90 minutes, has a whole lot of hindsight behind it.

And the hindsight is fascinating indeed.

The first acoustic guitar part with a moving bass line that I ever learned to play, back in eighth grade, was “Sundown”.

And it occurred to me – while LIghtfoot’s music wasn’t a huge, life-altering influence at the front of my mind, like Springsteen or (in my annoying adolescent days) The Who, Lightfoot’s music was always not just there, but found a way to burrow into my mind. Lightfoot’s music was always filling – there was as substance to it. It didn’t just flit through the mind and keep going.

He was an infamously fastidious songwriter and producer (not to mention, as the documentary notes, a rhythm guitarist who was in his prime such a solid, powerful musical presence that his band didn’t need a drummer until well into the seventies). His craftsmanship was very deliberate, very personal (in sixty years, he never worked with a co-writer), and pretty much completely him.

He came to fame in the folk music revival scene of the early 60s, on the basis of a lot of live performances and several songs covered by other artists; “Early Molrning Rain” and “If You Could Read My Mind” were covered by everyone from a Johnny Cash-style version by, well, Johnny Cash, to a disco version by VIola Wells that topped the R&B charts for a month in 1980.

And that leads us to one of the things that always drew me to Lightfoot; his music, like Dylan’s, kicked the fey, mewling limitations of “revival” folk music out of the way. The covers wandered all over the waterfront – from Wills’s disco read of “If You Could Read My Mind”…

To the Replacements sloppy punk…

To Sarah McLachlan’s alt-pop:

Favorites, looking back at a sixty year carer? Leaving out some of the obvious ones, like “Sundown” and “Wrech of the Edmund Fitzgerald”?

Some days, it’s the maddeningly oblique “Summer Side of Life”, with not-subtle Gospel overtones, distinctly un-folky Hammond organ part, and one of the most glorious vocal hooks ever?

The subtle “Don Quixote”, a protest song about…well, everything, and one that runs through my mind every time I on the air, today?

The tartly autobiographical “Race Among The Ruins”?

The freezing-cold social commentary of “Circle of Steel”?

On any given day, any or all of ’em qualify.

But for today? Looking back at Lightfoot’s 84 years (and my own, uh, several decades), this one seems most appropriate; a wistful look back, wrestling with regret, and finding away to live with them and still live.

RIP, Gordon LIghtfoot.

“The Only Way Home Is Through Berlin”

It’s an aphorism I’ve kept in my mind through a *lot* of life’s ugly travails and misfortunes this past 20-odd years, along with “This, Too, Shall Pass”. Together, the two lines are wonderful, complementary views of coping with life’s vicissitudes; trouble ain’t forever – but sometimes, the only way past a problem is to finesse, claw or bludgeon your way all the way to the other side of it.

Through divorce, dips in the employment situation, post-divorce shenanigans, teenage problems, pandemics, riots and all of life’s other ups and downs, both aphorisms have been priceless.

The original line was from Tom Sizemore, as Sergeant Horvath in “Saving Private Ryan”.

Sizemore didn’t write the line.

But if anyone else – John Krasinski or RuPaul or Mark Wahlberg or even Tom Hanks or Morgan Freeman, even a young Clint Eastwood – had delivered the line any other way, it wouldn’t have had the same impact.

But something about the way Sizemore delivered that line made it memorable enough to keep it front and center all these years.

And for that, I remember Tom Sizemore.

RIP Paul Johnson

No single book has shaped not just my understanding of modern history, but my own journey from adolescent leftist to conservative more than Modern Times, Paul Johnson’s epic history of the world from 1918 to about 1980 (and, in a revised edition, through the 1990s.

It wouldn’t be a great exaggeration to say that Johnson was the most important modern historian, thinker and writer in my life – not least because he, in starting out on the left before seeing the light and becoming a libertarian-conservative, more or less as I was doing at the time. He went from being an editor at the New Statesman to an adviser to Margaret Thatcher and leading public intellectual of the right, bringing his intellectual and historical gravitas with him.

And few books explain the debt modern society pays to a brief period in history, from 1815 to the mid-1840s, when self-educated men laid the groundwork for most of what makes modern society modern (from the steam engine and electric communication to the popular vote and pants) than Johnson’s Birth of the Modern .

And on, and on. through dozens of books. I still have 40 to go.

Johnson passed away last week at 94.

Modern Times shaped a generation and more of people who had studied history as interpreted by the Left. His explanation of the Great Depression drew greatly on the works of libertarian economists and provided a strong antidote to the conventional wisdom that FDR has saved capitalism from itself…A culture that produced Paul Johnson and others like him explains why British literary writing and journalism, on the whole, is so much better than most of what is produced in America. As Stephen Glover of Britain’s Daily Mail explains: “Even readers who thought they might disagree with him looked forward to his next offering. He never penned a dull sentence or had a dull thought.”

This blog, in its own way, started out as my little way of trying to repay my debt to Johnson .

He’d certainly be canceled with extreme prejudice, were he in his prime today.

Jeff Beck

Over my years of teaching myself to play guitar in an era before the Internet and Youtube, I aped the styles of an awful lot of guitar players: Eric Clapton, Pete Townsend, Keith Richard, Mark Knofler, Mike Campbell, Hendrix…

…but there were a few that I could never even think about copying. The fingers on my left hand just didn’t move fast enough to copy Eddie Van Halen or Nils Lofgren. The fingers on my right hand didn’t move fast enough to do Richard Thompson very well.

And I could never figure Jeff Beck out at all.

Beck – who played in the Yardbirds after Eric Clapton and efore Jimmy Page, before going solo – died yesterday at 78, of bacterial meningitis.

And once I started watching music on video, and saw that he picked with right thumb, only? That added insult to envy.

And yes, he is very difficult to imitate:

A very bad couple of years for music fans continue.


Angela Lansbury died earlier this week. She was just short of her 97th birthday.

I’m from a generation, sociology and geography that mostly knows her from Murder She Wrote and thousand viewings of Beauty and the Beast when my kids were little, and the bit of trivia that she was in, and exceptional, in one of my favorites, Gaslight with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer.

But if I ever want to know how important an actor really is, today as in 2004, I go to Sheila O’Malley:

If you think there is another career like Angela Lansbury’s – if you think a comparison can be made to somebody else’s career – you’re wrong. There IS nobody else. If Judy Garland were still around, doing television and movies and Broadway, then MAYBE. But other than that: Angela Lansbury stands (stood) alone. Angela Lansbury never rested on her laurels, and never stopped working. She showed up everywhere. She was bone-chilling in The Manchurian Candidate. She was sassy and insouciant as Elizabeth Taylor’s teenage sister in National Velvet. She was Auntie Mame. She was Mrs. Lovett. She was Jessica Fletcher, dammit.

It’s high time I watched Gaslight again.

Mikhail Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, died yesterday at 91.

The media has been eulogizing him as the person who led the way in ending the Cold War – the coverage lists Reagan almost as an afterthought.

A quick remiinder:

In 1980, literally nobody was predicting the fall of the USSR. Everyone claiming in 1992 that they knew all along it was inevitable was full of s**t. The Left thought Reagan in particular was insane for believing it could fall.

Gorbachev was not selected by the Politburo to dismantle the Soviet Union. He was brought in to preserve and update it – think “China”. It didn’t work.

Or, to put it in a pithier vibe:

Still and all, it could have been much worse. The disintegration of the USSR could have been a bigger disaster than it’s actually been (and that’s been bad enough).

RIP, Mikhail Gorbachev.

Drew Lee

In the radio industry I grew up in – especially the one I came of age in, in my later twenties, at places like KDWB – competition in radio was a constant, ugly thing. Especially in big-market music radio, getting ratings was mortal combat, a bloodsport where morality and ethics (and, often as not, sobrieity) got chucked before the first break of the morning weather. Pirates looked at major market radio executives and thought “arrrrr, cut off the cutthrrroat stuff, matey”.

Some of that faded after the 2008 recession, when most of the money left music radio. And talk radio has usually been, if not genteel, at least a little more civilized.

Among talk radio people in the Twin Cities, the comity was almost unsettling. While AM1290 and AM1130 competed for the same audience, the wrenching animus just wasn’t there.

For years, now, the personalities at the various stations [1] – Bob Davis, Sue Jeffers, Ben Kruse, Jon Justice and Walter Hudson from the 1130, all us NARN guys from the 1280 (and Jack Tomczak, who’s been at both), and even to a lesser extent the likes of Blois Olson and Jason DeRusha from ‘CCO – have gotten along very amiably, socially. It’s disconcertingly far from the cage match I grew up in.

And so it’s with more than collegial wishes and sympathies that I note that Andrew “Drew” Lee, long-time morning guy at the 1130, has passed away:

I won’t say I knew Drew well – but we met many times. He sat in on bass with my band a few years ago, and at various points made overtures about trying to get all of us local talk show hosts together under the 1130 banner (for which I thanked him, but genuinely like working for Salem, and they’ve treated us all way too well for any of us to walk away lightly – which Lee, as a radio lifer, understood).

He was a big-hearted guy, a devoted family man, and the kind of radio road warrior you just don’t find anymore. .

Prayers and condolences to his real and radio families.

[1] Heck, even the MPR folks let their sense of monastic above-it-all-ness drop for a couple years, there. Management put an end to that nonsense a few years back, unfortunately. It’s been their loss.


For those of you who know my family; my mother passed away over the weekend after a long battle with Alzheimer’s.

Mom was Janice Brooks.

Mom, probably 20-30 years ago. As much a fun contrarian with hats as with anything.

Before that, Janice Berg.

And before that, Janice Hall.

Like me, Mom was the oldest of three kids. I never knew much about her childhood – that’s a conversation I need to have with my aunt and uncle, sooner than later.. I wasn’t the only one to get the impression she got a little restless being a young mother of three in a small town in North Dakota. She had been an art major, loved painting, craved travel, and probably had had many other plans before she wound up as Mom.

She was born in Devils Lake North Dakota, grew up in Bismarck, lived in Jamestown throughout my childhood and young adulthood , spent several years in Ankara, Turkey, and then most of the past 25 years in Minot.

Mom is front and center, between my aunt Jerri and uncle Roger. My grandma Pat and grandpa Don are in the back. This was probably about 1950 or so.

Kids – at least, the ones who are lucky enough to have two functional parents – grow up as little melting pots of different combinations of their parents traits. Things I got from my dad should be fairly obvious; dad was a speech teacher, I speak a lot.

From my mom?

It’s funny. I just got off the phone with one of my mom’s old friends, someone I’ve known since I was, well, old enough to remember humans outside my family.. One of her memories of mom is her running into groups of people and getting into long, involved discussions with them, just for the fun of it.. When I was in college, she ran for the North Dakota State House of Representatives, as a Democrat – in one of the most Republican places in the world. She didn’t win – but I think she enjoyed the battle just fine.

Where did I get my contrarian streak from, you ask?

And to the extent that I don’t sweat the small stuff in life, to the extent of sometimes very studiously ignoring the small things?.

That’s mom as well.

But I do know that, along with my dad, she gave me one of the great gifts a child could ever have; a completely unremarkable childhood, where the three of us – my little sister and brother and I – pretty much just got to be kids, without having to deal with a whole lot of a crap that parents inflict on their offspring if they are not lucky. Tolstoy wrote “Happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is different in their own way.” I used to complain that I had a “Beaver Cleaver“ childhood, especially when I was an angsty teenager; now I realize it was one of the greatest things a parent can give a child.

Years later, after my parents split up (10 days after my own wedding), she remarried, spent several years living in Turkey and indulging her latent travel bug, and finally moved to Minot when her second husband (who like my father was conveniently named Bruce), retired from the NSA.

(Side note: My extended family has two Bruces, two Jans, and a total of four Nicks – more than any non-Greek family in the world).

They built their dream house, which was like a little Turkish cultural center on the edge of town. One of my favorite enduring memories of both of them; meeting them on a visit to the Twin Cities, in the little Turkish restaurant down the street from our house; waiting with my kids, for them to come in, and watching the staff’s jaws drop as a couple of middle-aged Anglos would respond in fluent Turkish.

And while she sometimes may have bristled at the limitations of being mom, she loved being grandma. Some of my kids greatest memories, I suspect, involved trips to grandmas house, up over the creek on the southeast side of Minot. Watching those visits certainly stuck with me.

I’m not sure if it was a “pre-social media” thing, but she loved entertaining. She groused about it, of course, but she loved having people over; crowds of teachers, the book club she and her friends ran from probably 1970 to sometime in the mid-90s or early 2002s, and – during the epic Minot flood of 1997, when the city was flooded 15 feet deep, she and her house on the hill hosted probably a dozen people, on mattresses all over the place. It was her ultimate house party.

The picture below? She is sitting with her brother and sister and their spouses, at my fathers place in Jamestown, in September 2017. It was a mini “family reunion“ my brother and sister and I put together.

It was a wonderful couple of days, that brought together all of the branches of our (fairly small) family for the first time in decades. In retrospect, it was also bittersweet; it was the first time most of us noticed Mom‘s memory was misfiring a little too often, and too alarmingly, to be normal.

Her second husband passed away two years ago last month, right as the lockdown started. This left Mom alone in a memory care in Minot, for several miserable months during the lockdown. We have no idea how much damage being stuck, alone (despite the best efforts of an overstretched staff) was for her before the charnel house that was Minnesota’s long term care system settled down enough to move her here, but the ball of rage still burns.

But among the many things I’m thankful for are that we were, eventually, able to get her moved to the Twin Cities, to be back around family, my brother and I, after several difficult months.

Memory problems proceeded to dementia, which eventually turned officially into Alzheimer’s. And yet after 4 1/2 years, things resolved so quickly over this past week or so that I am still very much in shock.

Still, my mother was lucky; she never got to the stage of Alzheimer’s where the disease ate the part of her brain that contained her personality. She remembered me and my brother, and even as her mental loop dropped from 5 minutes to 3 to two down to simple responses to questions, she still remembered who we, her family, and the people around her were, up till the very end. For that, again, I am thankful.

So quit reading, and go hug your parents. Or your kids. Either, or both.

“I’m Not A Liberal, So I’m Not An Expert At Stuff I Know Nothing About”

Converting to conservatism started simply enough – intellectually.

Personally? It was still a tough pill to swallow, growing up in what passed for a “liberal” home in rural North Dakota in the eighties. Conservatism made sense. Conservatives, as people, made sense – to the extent that stereotypes always do. . Conservatives looked and acted – in the stereotypes that drove much of my 20-ish year old mental model – with Jerry Falwell’s seeming smug sanctimony, with Pat Buchanan’s aggressive know-it-all-ism, the cloying certainty of some of the Young Republican crowd I’d met, with all the usual stereotypes that the media culture, then as now, made the official narrative.

The stereotypes, applied to the people I knew or knew of, made sense.

Me being one of those people did not.

Not until I found P.J. O’Rourke.

Reading the essays that led to his 1987 book Republican Party Reptile, in Rolling Stone and Car and Driver and the usual dog’s breakfast of magazines that paid the freelance journalist and humorist’s bills, O’Rourke told the tale of the “pants-down conservative” – the person who played their music too loud, liked a cocktail or two, had a liberarian outlook on day to day – with a caveat:

There is only one basic human right, the right to do as you damn well please. And with it comes the only basic human duty the duty to take the consequences”

The list of keeper quotes itself serves as a great guide to life, politics, and political life.

O’Rourke passed away earlier this week:

I never got to meet O’Rourke in person; I was always a day late and a dollar short. David Harsanyi was luckier.

After 30 years, A Parliament of Whores remains the single best satire/fact book about American government I’m aware of. Give War a Chance, some of the finest conflict journalism ever. As Harsanyi noted, many libertarian conservatives have aspired to O’Rourke’s style (Mitch bashfully raises his hand); none have ever come close to matching it. He’s been described as an HL Mencken – but without the misanthropy or unearned arrogance.

And if Mitch Berg ever become Secretary of State, the Foggy Bottom mission statement will be rewritten as follows:

“I was having dinner…in London…when eventually he got, as the Europeans always do, to the part about “Your country’s never been invaded.” And so I said, “Let me tell you who those bad guys are. They’re us. WE BE BAD. We’re the baddest-assed sons of bitches that ever jogged in Reeboks. We’re three-quarters grizzly bear and two-thirds car wreck and descended from a stock market crash on our mother’s side. You take your Germany, France, and Spain, roll them all together and it wouldn’t give us room to park our cars. We’re the big boys, Jack, the original, giant, economy-sized, new and improved butt kickers of all time. When we snort coke in Houston, people lose their hats in Cap d’Antibes. And we’ve got an American Express card credit limit higher than your piss-ant metric numbers go. You say our country’s never been invaded? You’re right, little buddy. Because I’d like to see the needle-dicked foreigners who’d have the guts to try. We drink napalm to get our hearts started in the morning. A rape and a mugging is our way of saying ‘Cheerio.’ Hell can’t hold our sock-hops.

We walk taller, talk louder, spit further, fuck longer and buy more things than you know the names of. I’d rather be a junkie in a New York City jail than king, queen, and jack of all Europeans. We eat little countries like this for breakfast and shit them out before lunch.”

RIP, P.J. O’Rourke.

UPDATE: Mr D. had about the same idea, at about the same time.

P. J. O’Rourke, RIP

P. J. O’Rourke died yesterday at the age of 74. He was one of the best conservative pundits of the last 50 years and certainly the funniest. He also had a keen eye. In his 1990 classic Parliament of Whores, he provided a spot-on synopsis of the people you meet at a protest rally. Tell me if these descriptions from 30+ years ago still don’t ring true:

World Council of Churches sensible-shoe types who have self-righteousness the way some people have bad breath

Angry black poverty pests making a life and a living off the misfortunes of others

Even angrier feminists doing their best to feminize poverty before the blacks use it all up

Earnest neophyte Marxists, eyes glazed from dialectical epiphanies and hands grubby from littering the Mall with ill-Xeroxed tracts

College bohos dressed in black to show how gloomy the world is when you’re a nineteen-year-old rich kid

Young would-be hippies dressed exactly like old hippies used to dress (remarkable how behind the times the avant-garde has gotten)

And some of those old hippies themselves, faded jeans straining beneath increasing paunches, hair still tied into a ponytail in the back but gone forever from the top

His powers of observation set him apart from other writers, especially those who tried their hand at satire. He understood his targets better than the targets understood themselves.

As O’Rourke grew older, he softened the sharp edges and some of his thinking got a bit pear-shaped. He drew the ire of conservatives everywhere when he endorsed Hillary Clinton in 2016. I was not a fan of Donald Trump either, but O’Rourke’s powers of observation betrayed him that time:

Dorothy and Toto’s house fell on Hillary. I endorse her.

Munchkins endorse her.

Donald Trump is a flying monkey.

Except what the flying monkeys have to say, “oreoreoreo,” makes more sense than Trump’s policy statements.

Not that Hillary makes much sense either.

Hillary is wrong about everything. She is to politics and statecraft what Pope Urban VIII and the Inquisition were to Galileo. She thinks the sun revolves around herself.

But Trump Earth™ is flat. We’ll sail over the edge. Here be monsters.

O’Rourke was wrong about that. Hillary is more of a monster in real life than anything O’Rourke could imagine over the edge. We’ll leave that aside. Where O’Rourke made his mark, and where his legacy will reside, is in being a proto-Mencken for our age. And let’s say it — his bon mots were pretty bon:

There are probably more fact-finding tours of Nicaragua right now than there are facts— the country has shortages of practically everything.

Or this:

The second item in the liberal creed, after self-righteousness, is unaccountability. Liberals have invented whole college majors— psychology, sociology, women’s studies— to prove that nothing is anybody’s fault. No one is fond of taking responsibility for his actions, but consider how much you’d have to hate free will to come up with a political platform that advocates killing unborn babies but not convicted murderers. A callous pragmatist might favor abortion and capital punishment. A devout Christian would sanction neither. But it takes years of therapy to arrive at the liberal view.

Or this:

Even the bad things are better than they used to be. Bad music, for instance, has gotten much briefer. Wagner’s Ring Cycle takes four days to perform while “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” by the Crash Test Dummies lasts little more than three minutes.

But above all, this:

The American political system is like a gigantic Mexican Christmas fiesta. Each political party is a huge piñata — a papier-mâché donkey, for example. The donkey is filled with full employment, low interest rates, affordable housing, comprehensive medical benefits, a balanced budget and other goodies. The American voter is blindfolded and given a stick. The voter then swings the stick wildly in every direction, trying to hit a political candidate on the head and knock some sense into the silly bastard.

We all need our sticks and few wielded a more elegant brickbat than the Irish kid from Toledo. RIP,

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.