That is all.
Legendary Twin Cities voice-over artist Dick Ervasti has passed away.
Don’t know Dick Ervasti?
Oh, yes you do. Like any of the big voiceover guys, you’ve heard him forever. His voice is part of the mental background noise in everyone’s life:
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.
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:
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.
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.
Alex Trebek, passed away at 80 of pancreatic cancer.
And there goes one of my bucket list dreams.
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
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.
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
All my old heroes are passing. A Moonshiner turned NASCAR racer? Now THAT is the Resistance!
Wow. Shows what I know – I thought Johnson died in the seventies – and that he’d have been a lot older than that. He was a legend when I was a little kid and followed auto racing.
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.
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 passed away yesterday. She was 78.
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.
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.
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.
Pat DiNizio of the Smitherens is dead at 66.
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.
I ‘m shocked and a little depressed to see that Caleb Palmiter died over the summer.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
— Boyd Huppert (@BoydHuppert) July 16, 2017
But then we all are, eventually.
Thanks for the amazing story, Greg, RIP.
Over the weekend, I heard about the passing of June Smith.
You’ve heard about her in this space before; she was the wife of Dick Smith, my college choir director, about whose passing I wrote six years ago.
And while I spent less time with Mrs. Smith, she was just as important a figure in my life as her husband was. And I don’t suispect I was the only one.
Junior high was a miserable time. I suspect it is for pretty much everyone that’s not an early bloomer – and I was certainly not that.
The worst part? Most of the things that had let me coast through elementary school – a way with words, a moderate facility with and enjoyment of wriring – had been turned into penal drudgery by years of needing to learn the right way to do it. I’d always loved writing – but between seventh and tenth grade, the only “writing” that happened was slogging through grammar, diagramming sentences, beating rules into our heads that I, honestly, didn’t know, but practiced just fine.
And then, in 11th grade, I finally got to take “Creative Writing”, with Mrs. Smith – a longtime English department colleague of my dad’s at the high school.
I came very close to writing “And suddenly, writing was fun again!”.
It was. But to leave it there would leave out half of the story. Because – l like her husband did with music – she taught us how good writing could be with a little bit of discipline.
And she did it with one enduring concept: Engfish.
She described it as “English that is so full of soggy, rotten, cliched, pompous, pretentious dead weight that it stinks like a dead, rotting fish”. Her stated mission was to teach us how to write without Engfish.
Her class included some writing exercises I still remember. When our essays included any cliches, redundancy or pomposity, they’d come back marked with a penciled in fish, with “x” eyes and little vapor lines radiating upward. That was the Engfish sign; you’d written something that stank, and needed to rewrite it.
The real acid test? We’d turn in an essay; when she hit a phrase that made her lose internest – a big of Engfish, a soggy parenthetical, a diversion from the thesis – she drew a line at that point and stopped reading. She’d had it back to us to rewrite, as many times as it took for her to get through the essay with no Engfish. Getting an essay past her without getting it sent back was one of the highlights of my junior year.
And that – learning how to write tight, to-the-point English – made writing not just fun, but truly absorbing, something I finally felt like I was in command of.
I wasn’t, of course – it’d take my college writing prof, Dr. Blake (who also passed away in the past year and a half) and years of practice to get there, and truth be told I still work at it, hard, every day. It’s half the reason I plug away on this blog every weekday.
But ever since Mrs. Smith’s class, I’ve genuinely enjoyed it.
Mrs. Smith taught a lot of good writers, including her daughter and my high school classmate Kathryn, who wrote this essay last week about caring for June this past few months, while she’s been ailing.
This? Just my way of saying thanks. All that teaching actually changed a kid’s life, and is still doing it.
Nat Hentoff passed away over the weekend. He was 91.
After getting his start as a jazz critic with the Village Voice, Hentoff swerved into a career as a civil liberties activist. Probably 25 years ago, I read Free Speech For Me, But Not For Thee – a book about free speech, but even moreso a treatise on how protecting freedom for the unpopular and unsavory was as important, or more important, than protecting it for “the good guys”. It also warned of today’s campus totalitarianism. Hentoff, a longtime ACLU activist, lived out what the organization was back before it turned into the “Manhattan Civil Liberties Union.
It’s become a traffic-worn cliche to say an old-time conservative, a Ronald Reagan or a Jack Kemp, “..couldn’t get elected in today’s GOP” – but it’s actually true that Nat Hentoff couldn’t get arrested in today’s power-mad hard left. We know this because today’s left literally did, in fact, reject him:
In 2009, after 50 years, Hentoff lost his job at the Village Voice. He was told it was due to “budget” concerns, but most believe he had been fired because his libertarianism was increasingly controversial on the left. In the years that followed, he wrote for numerous publications, including The Washington Times, and worked with the Cato Institute. He was honored by and spoke on free speech and privacy at a Conservative Political Action Conference and served on the advisory board of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which fights for free speech on our campuses.
When the Village Voice cast him adrift, he observed that he would just have to put on his “skunk suit” and saunter off to someone else’s “garden party.” And he did just that. He supported the Iraq war, but was a dogged critic of the Bush administration’s assault on privacy rights in the name of the “War on Terror.” He said he was going to support Barack Obama in 2008, but couldn’t because of the man’s views on partial-birth abortion. Last year he was to be found in the camp of Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky. He had not become a conservative, but remained Nat Hentoff. He was a man who could get up in the morning, look himself in the mirror and see the face of one who had, regardless of what others might say, remained true to his convictions.
He may have been the last liberal who actually was a liberal.
Jimmy Breslin died over the weekend. He was 88.
We’ll come back to that.
The media today – or at least, people of a certain age (i.e. older than me) who are still in the media – remind me of circus performers telling inside jokes about what the ringmaster did after that one show in Lincoln, or of mailmen amongst themselves about the worst breeds of dog to encounter, or city bus drivers reminiscing about the foibles of that old model of bus that got retired a couple of decades ago, unlamented by anyone but, well, them. They remind me of any group of clubby, beleaguered insiders who turn the foibles, peccadillos and petty miseries of their callings into legends in their own minds. Not like World War II veterans telling niche anecdotes from a little tiny window of the fight to save freedom. Just guys who did something most people don’t care about all that much, building it in their minds into something worthy of the life they built around it.
Unlike arthritic old circus hands, mailmen and bus drivers, journalists buy newsprint by the rail car and ink by the barrel – so they can inflict their particular tales, traditions and argot onto the rest us. And lest anyone accuse me of ridiculing other people, I am one of them, at least as regards the radio industry.
I remember hearing some longtime Twin Cities journalists talk about Nick Coleman leaving the Star/Tribune. “He was a great, old-time newspaperman”, one of them said. “One of the best”.
Why, I asked.
What followed was an explanation I can’t possibly reproduce here – but it boiled down to Coleman epitomizing what an old-school “ink-stained wretch” was supposed to look, act and write like.
And I thought “this is the Nick Coleman who made an outsized contribution to the decline and fall of journalism. If he didn’t like you, he’d just make s**t up; he’d conjure up community groups from his imagination, or make up facts when he didn’t know enough to dig, ask or wait for the real ones. And he played a bigger-than-average role in the financial ruination of the field he, and the journos who reminisce about him, try to earn a living in.
But no matter. Journalists are like those hold each other to a standard that only they understand, and really only makes sense, or matters, really, to them.
And so Nick Coleman is a hero, while journalists who actually do what journalists are supposed to do but don’t know the secret handshake get mocked and derided by the bus drivers. Er, circus geeks.
Damn. I mean journos.
Along those lines, Journos like to tells themselves their mission nis to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”.
It’s pretty inevitably b******t. Most reporters spend their careers covering city council meetings and one-car crashes and writing obits and, today, probably selling ads to help their outlet get by. Their biases are irrelevant, because their beats are all about the mundanities of civic and public life that are just too boring for partisanship.
But Jimmy Breslin, like Studs Terkel and Jim Klobuchar and, heaven help us, Nick Coleman, was on a different plane. A columnist as well as a reporter, or maybe a reporter who got to have opinions, a pioneer in what they used to call “New Journalism” – subjective, advocacy-oriented, opinionated, journalism that put white and black hats on its subjects…
…rather than letting the reader do it for themselves.
To journos – and consumers of a certain outlook – it was brilliant, pioneering stuff. And it certainly did pioneer the idea of the journalist as the crusader rather than the crier, the seeker of goals rather than the reporter of facts – as the ones who could comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable. As being able to fight, as one of Breslin’s obituary writers said, for the little guy.
I found out Breslin’s regard for the little guy, straight from the horse’s mouth. I met Breslin once, back in 1986. He was doing a book tour, back when book tours meant traveling the country and doing radio live in the studio; I booked him on the Don Vogel show.
This was in the wake of one of Bernard Goetz’s trials. Vogel asked him a question about Goetz – an electrician who’d been mugged, over and over, and reacted famously by shooting a group of muggers in the subway with an unregistered gun (only celebrities and politicians could get handgun license in New York – and that’s still pretty much true).
Breslin oozed contempt for Goetz. It was sneering, visceral, hateful – as if the thought that a mere hoi polloi’s life was worth defending itself violated the public order.
But Goetz wasn’t “the little guy” to Breslin or the “journalism” establishment who aped him. The criminals – with whom the purveyors of the myth of New York in the sixties and seventies had long since made fitful peace – were the little guys; not predators, not even pests; part of a zen-like symbiosis that one had to tolerate to “be a New Yorker”.
To the likes of Breslin and his many many imitators.
He was there for the right little guys.
Like most journos.
But never let it be said I speak ill of the dead. Breslin did write one thing in his long career that rocked me back on my heels; the piece he wrote about the surgery he underwent a few decades back for an aneurysm. Positively brilliant. I can’t find it, but I will keep looking.