Say goodbye to Michael for me

When I was growing up, I often heard the maxim that “nobody can forget where they were when they learned that JFK had been shot.”

I was on Twitter when I learned that Michael Jackson had passed. Not quite sure, but I think I was at work in Cambridge. When you’re in Twitterspace, do your surroundings matter?

I turned to my pal Cutler and told him that news was breaking that MJ had suffered a heart attack.

“That guy’s living on borrowed time,” he offered.

“That guy’s living on borrowed cash,” I countered.

My dear friend NPR was filled with soundbites about today’s memorial service. I heard the Reverend Al Sharpton’s heavy, rhythmic tones, his howl that we should focus on the artist, the love. I heard a woman saying that she’s sending her kids to the memorial service because “this is what music is about”.

Well, if you had a pulse in the last 30 years (and knew it), your life was touched by MJ one way or another.

Personally, my life was touched by Quincy Jones more than by MJ – but I’m the type of guy that listens to the bass lines and horn parts BEFORE ever listening to the lyrics. There are dozens of pop songs from the sixties and seventies that I can sing all the orchestrations of, but i barely know any words other than the lyrics in the hook.

Same with MJ. Take, “Rock With You”, which, counter to one pundit’s opinion I heard during the last week’s media hysteria, is most definitely “baby making music”. It opens with a classy, lonely Moogy-sounding synthesizer and builds to a real-live-string-section disco gesture all in the first eight bars. In the hook, there’s a flugelhorn – flugelhorn, mind you – counter line that puts the right touch of mascara on the eyebrows on the song. I could listen to that track over and over – if it weren’t for MJ’s singing.

Yes, I will commit the ultimate heresy and tell you that, to my taste, Michael’s adult singing style is highly irritating.

I heard some breathy ballad he did on the radio the other day, one that I did not recognize. It reminded me of all those cuts that Sinatra shouldn’t have made. I couldn’t really listen to it. His intonation, his attack, his lack of support – it just made me uncomfortable. And that says nothing about the treacly sentiment he was trying to get across. I agree with The Critic I Can’t Remember on one point: Michael had a hard time with the plain old straight-ahead “I Love You” song. It always seemed to come out more like an alien setting foot on our planet for the first time and falling head over heels for a Tussaud wax figure of Marilyn Monroe – kind of stilted and surreal and filled with inner torment and impossibility.

I heard a lot of African-American voices this morning on the radio calling, “He’s black! He’s ours!” Agreed – well, he sure started out black. He was a role model for young African-American artists. He was hot. He was successful. I remember the pictures of him before adolescence descended on him, with his ‘fro poking out from under one of those badass floppy hats. Flaired knit pants and vests – he was totally IT and I sure couldn’t dress the way he did and go around Cleveland expecting to avoid a hassle.

I’ll tell you one thing – I didn’t hear a lot of men calling out, “He’s male! He’s ours!” this morning on the radio.

Let’s face it: Michael wanted to obliterate the assignments of race and gender that he felt made him a prisoner in his own voluptuous castle. He went to great lengths and great expense to alter his appearance to become what? A white woman?

That doesn’t really describe it. Maybe the negative space approach helps here: he was aiming for not black. Not white. Not male. Not female. Not old.

Many complained while he was still alive that the result of his body mod experiments was something not human. So, yeah. The dude looked like a freak show. He was visually hard to take, especially as the surgeries progressed and got worse. In the interviews I heard with him (and I did not see the whole TV special stuff that he put on during the trial, I just heard sound bites) his speaking voice was soft and effeminate. It was as chiseled as his chin, and the point was to communicate, “I am a gentle soul.”

So now, in death, I am hearing many calls to ignore what he did, and to focus on what he produced. What he stood for in his art.

OK, I can do that for a little while. It don’t matter if you’re black or white. I’m down with that. What about the paternity suit inspired “Billie Jean” – the kid is not my son? (It don’t matter if you’re Mom or Dad, he snarked.) But then, there’s “Man In The Mirror” – which is a righteous piece of funk if ever there was one. Read the lyrics: it’s about trying to change the world for good, starting with changing yourself and your outlook. I can get behind that song.

But tell me – “Smooth Criminal” is about a woman getting murdered, right? “Beat It” is about running rather than fighting a gang – do I have that one right too?

I know. You’re saying, “Come on. What? What are the Sex Pistols lyrics about? Or The Clash? James Brown? U2? Rick James? Duran Duran? Don’t come the innocent prude here. People listen to stuff just to feel good.”

Well, you’re right.

But the point I’m trying to make here is that we’re putting Michael in the ground without really looking at him as we’re saying goodbye. Or not saying goodbye, as some have it.

We’re turning a blind eye to the troubled person he was. We’re ignoring that his identity probably tortured him greatly, and that no amount of plastic surgery or lipstick or pretending he was still 11 years old helped him feel better about himself for long. We’re ignoring his legacy of financial mismanagement and his narrow scrape with pederasty laws.

We’re ignoring to a large degree any inroads he might have made in disrupting the boundaries of race and gender. Instead, we’re basking in his huge ego trip, and making it our own huge ego trip.

Just look over your shoulder, honey.


Dear Dad,

I keep meaning to write to you. Sorry it’s been so long.

Anyway, whatever, as they say. I woke up yesterday thinking about a question I meant to ask you when I was in kindergarten or first grade.

The question, as I remember it, is this:

When you’re looking at a blank piece of paper, and you’re holding a pencil in your hand, do you know which lines are going to come out of the pencil before they get to the paper? Or does the pencil have control, and you take what it gives you?

I remember imagining the pencil as being a fountain of infinite squiggly lines that I had little to no control over. The pencil was – and remains – something to wrestle with.

For example, if I wanted to draw a cat, I could make lines that would look the way a kid would draw a cat. Circle for a head, triangles for the ears, whiskers. Ovals with vertical slits for eyes.

I remember this though: if I set out to draw a cat – even accepting the fact that it would look like 6-year-old artist outline of cat – I would still be surprised by the results that the pencil would spew out on the page. Maybe the head would be too big, or the ears too small, or the eyes oddly placed.

Well, as they say, this is why you practice. You learn to coordinate the eye, the brain, the hand – and the extension of the hand, the pencil.

Let me jump for a minute to my work with the guitar. I think I’ve done a fairly good job of creating the same kind of flow, from ear to brain to finger to string. I like to say that it’s always a matter of shortening the distance between ear and string, and you have all this stuff in the way – brain, arm, elbow, finger. It’s a matter of making that intermediate stuff lightweight, seamless, transparent, invisible.

When I play a note, I react to it immediately. My reaction informs the way I play the next note. And so on, faster and faster, ad infinitum, until the end of time – which comes up fast in a piece of music.

I guess the goal is to make it all ear, with nothing in between.

Or for you, the goal would have been to make it all eye, with nothing in between. Pencil, brush, knife, piece of lumber, whatever. Tools. Not there.

But the point is – I wanted to ask YOU about how YOU wrestle with the pencil. I think I tried to ask you at one point, but I’m not sure you heard me right or understood me. After all, it’s a pretty complex question for a grown-up to confront. It might not have occurred to you what I was trying to ask when I was four or five.

After you were gone, I remember being in first grade, and the itinerant art teacher would come in once a week, and she’d hand out the blank paper and the crayons, and she’d put something on a table at the front of the room and say, “Draw this.” Pandemonium would usually reign for 45 minutes, the papers would get collected or simply sent home. The girls’ drawing were always very tidy, and the boys’ looked like nightmare recollections. I remember my reaction at the time to these “lessons” was that I was already indoctrinated to this world of art, that I had inside knowledge. But I was always horrified to witness what came out of my pencil, despite my greatest efforts at control.

Hey, I took a life drawing course last summer, Dad. I’m not Leonardo, by any stretch of the imagination. But I think I’d like to do it again. Just me and the charcoal and the model. It feels like facing a familiar opponent each time I look at that big empty piece of paper.

OK well, I’ll write you again soon. I love ya, Dad.

Your son,


Laurel Ann Bowman

I was devastated to learn this week that my pal, colleague, confidante and mentor Laurel Bowman passed away.

Wait a minute – weren’t we supposed to grow old together and sit around the Old Ad Folks Home and talk about how kids know nothing anymore and how it was back in the day? Weren’t we supposed to found the Geriatric Sound Museum where old rockers could wheel off and have another go at fame and ear drum damage?

So it’s only now dawning on me that this is the real deal and that Laurel has left us. I guess that means that I’m leaving Denial behind and about to experience Anger.

Laurel BowmanSo… I remember being introduced to Laurel at 855 Boylston Street, where i worked for IQ&J/121 Marketing. (“Help Clients Win.”) I worked for Jim Ricciardi at the time, managing computer art and layout in his studio. When Laurel came on board, Jim knew her from Arnold and I got the signal that she was good people, family. They shared laughs about folks they knew in common, and I could tell immediately that Laurel was somebody I needed to get to know.

I was spending a lot of time flipping between the Photoshop/Quark workflows that fed the print production beast, and writing HTML and figuring out this new dealy-o thing called The Web. There were like maybe two other computer geeks in the building who got it (Lee Stanford and Bill Fanning), but for everyone else it was a mystery – in fact almost nobody had heard of it. So a skunkworks task force formed, and Mark Wilson came on board, and we decided to go to Management (Bink and Tom) to show them what this new medium could do and to get buy-in that we should take the agency in this direction and pursue work. Mark selected Jay Bernasconi as his art director, and Laurel as his writer.

We landed work, thanks in no small part to the fact that when Laurel entered a room, things lit up. She was a force to be reckoned with. There was no denying her presence.

Clients loved Laurel. They believed in her, because she made it clear that she believed in them. She was their partner. We got repeat business, from clients who would leave their company and brings us along to their new employers. We started to grow.

There was a period of time when it was sort of like we were moonlighting – direct ad spreads by day, interactive projects by night. At one point, Laurel and Emily Gallardo went to the Kwajalein Atoll. on a project for Raytheon. They came back jetlagged and exhausted and filled with stories. I still have a little wooden Buddha that Laurel gave me from that trip.

Ingalls moved to the Design Center in South Boston and rebranded itself. I almost got myself fired, I was so angry over the move. For the record, and to clear the air, I want to say this to Tom Block: I am sorry I was such an asshole. Now that I am older, I understand what you did, and I know my words and actions must have really irritated you. I apologize, once again.

You see, Laurel and Tom had a great rapport. Of course! Laurel and Mark helped me through that rather bleak moment in my life. I owe you guys still for that one.

But back to Southie, and the freshly-minted Ingalls Interactive. Mark brought Katie Fitzgerald on board, and we started pulling down business for real. We were full time interactive, and we became a component in most new business pitched for General and Direct – especially Direct.

You must think that all we did was advertising. Not so. Here’s the heart of the story for me.

Laurel had her band, Lumen. Through her gigantic magnetic field, she managed to pull me away from the desperate orbit I had fallen in to and helped me achieve enough velocity to rejoin the world of the living rockers. I dusted off my keyboard gear and found myself playing with Jack Frosting. I hung out and took in the local rock scene. I felt my fingers thaw and I got back into action.

One time Laurel had a gig or something and she asked if I would come along and maybe just help out a little. I said sure, of course. So we’re riding along in Walter, and we get to TT’s or some place, and we’re getting out of the car, and Laurel leans over and in a confidential voice she says to me, “You know, I’m not as butch as I look. Would you mind grabbing that amp out of the back seat?”

We went to each others gigs. We listened to each others studio roughs. We celebrated each other’s CD releases. When her copy of CMJ would come in, she’d drag me into her office and play me the cuts she thought were worth anything.

Laurel used to dog sit for my family. She took the Baby Dog when we went out of town. I recall also having Bailey come and live with us for a week at one point. What a sweetie Bailey was.

Simone glommed on to Laurel. It was sort of like watching two atoms fall into orbit and bond to form a bigger molecule. Simone insisted on being dedicated at the Theodore Parker Church and on having Laurel as her godmother. At work, Laurel was always asking about Simone.

We grew and grew. Sichon, Mel, Michah, Anthe, Jill (“SHAPIRO!!!!!!!”), Johnny Figs came on board. We landed a whopper from John Hancock and Matt Warren and Ryan McDonough joined the family. And we were a family, with Laurel as den mom.

Comedy was a central part of our daily rituals. We usually had a Howard Stern debrief around 11 am every day. Me and her, we did Jerky Boys routines. We traded being “Sizzle Chest” and “Liver Lips”. That’s where the concept of the Hot Mop came from, a Jerky Boys call that had us on the floor laughing. Laurel turned it into a verb, so when she indicated we should hotmop something, that meant climb up on the roof of it and fix it pronto, bud. No excuses!

Things change, the world turns, people get new jobs. Katie went to iXL, I followed about six months later. Laurel and Robert Guay peeled off and formed Red98 – a whole ‘nuther story that I really don’t know much about, since I was already drinking iXL’s Coca-Cola. Laurel and I kept exchanging dog sittings until she moved to Ipswich and I moved out and got an apartment of my own.

Laurel, Mary, I’m sorry I never made it up to Ipswich to visit. It’s totally my lack of initiative that’s to blame. But then, I guess we take each other for granted sometimes, don’t we?

Back in the old days, when I was pounding out HTML for Ingalls Interactive, I’d run across situations where the copy needed an edit or tweaking – or there was just no copy outright. So, I’d supply my own and run it past Laurel in an email. She’d either tweak my tweak or tell me “Rock on!”. The greatest honor Laurel gave me was to tell me I was an honorary member of Local 855, her pet name for her club of copy writers at the agency.

Laurel, as I write this, they’re laying you to rest. I’m glad I was with you and Mary and your mom and dad and uncle and family last night. I’m glad I saw all our family from back in the day. I love you all.

I love you Laurel. I can’t tell you enough.

Zappa Plays Bicycle

Normally, I’m not one of those bloggers that post a lot of video, but I’m still savoring the recent Zappa tribute on WZBC that I did with James and Matt. Along the way, the conversation turned briefly to the famed Zappa-on-bicycle bit, so here it is – as long as it stays posted on YouTube.

I guess there’s no hope for the video on this piece – it looks like bad compression, sort of like what you see when you over-jpeg something. Sometimes, this is the best that the wayback machine can come up with. Try googling Ghoulardi and see what you get…

Rock-lag and the ghost of Tom Sheehan

Here’s what my day was like yesterday:

Viv and I hop out of bed around 5:45 am-ish. Viv hops in her car and heads west to get her boys and bring them home, ahead of the massive snowstorm bearing down on New England.

I prepare my things carefully, grab my laptop and bass guitar, and head on down to South Station, where I grab some brekkie and jump on the 8:20 Amtrak regional to NYC.

On the train, I get a port side window and an outlet. I con call in to work for an hour, and spend the rest of the ride writing and testing little code widgets that’ll come in useful real soon. I’ve been building these little ditties for weeks now, and the rubber’s hitting the road right about yesterday, at this rate. The blizzard is breathtaking as we whiz through it, each time I look out the window.

I haul in to Penn Station, grab a number 2 to Times Square, change to the N-R-W heading downtown, and find my way to 23 and Broadway. Sleety rain. Gigundo puddles. After a salad and a coffee, I head up to the 18th floor of 11 Madison Ave. and dig in and work some more. Look Dad, I made it to Madison Avenue. Hum. He sneers from beyond this world.

5:15 I hit the street and grab a number 6 to Bleeker Street, change to the F train, which takes me to the Lower East Side. It’s a little warmer for some reason, and New York is coated with slush. The older subway stations are dipping and dank. I’m still carting the laptop and the bass, my shoulders are hurting.

I find the club and join Chris W. at the bar. 5:50 – I’m 10 minutes early for sound check. No sign of Tom.

The club is not bad, in a post-surf-decor kind of way. Young trendy kids are drinking it up at happy hour, which I guess is still allowed in NY, happy hour being banned in Boston. Come on, none of these kids have cars in the city anyway. The room we’re playing in is actually kind of sonically sealed off from the front room, and it’s got a stage with good monitors and a kickass sound system. Our sound guy is named Ofer (hope I’m spelling it right) and he know his shit (as we say in the biz).

The band before us is finishing up their check, and as they’re leaving the stage the drummer tells me they’ve flown in from California just to do this show. He makes a point of introducing himself to us as “Country Bumpkin”. We immediately call him “C.B.” to his face, and he nicely asks us to stick around and hear their set, it’s unique and kind of unusual. They’re from “the high desert town of Joshua Tree”. OK. They all head back to their hotel to prepare for their hour of NYC stage time.

Our check goes well. The bass sounds good. I’m thinking of Tony Maimone and my pal Tom Sheehan who left us two years ago, making NYC that much emptier for me. I’m sure he would have made it down to see me, and maybe even heckle me for trying to play bass. I know that in his last few years in the city, he told me he was starting to play again in clubs, but then he got real sick, and I’m pretty sure he checked out without getting to play out much more.

We go hang out front while the opening act (Wounded Buffalo Theory) sets up to check and be ready to open. We’re number 2 in line, wheels up at 9 pm. The Buffalos’ lead player introduces himself to me as Lucas and we chat about guitarists, saxophone giants, and academia.

8 pm sharp, the Theory goes live, and man they are loud. I watch them for about half an hour, then my medulla needs a break, and I want to psych up for Rotary, so I bail to the front. The Buffaloes conclude, pack up and leave, and take their crowd with them. We’re now playing for maybe 12 people. But hey, Limey G and The Boy are in town, and they made it out to hear us. I’m thrilled! I brought some peeps!

Well, I manage to have my grisly moment pretty early on, playing a very convincing C# where a B was clearly required at the beginning of a new phrase. Tom just shook his head and gave me That Look. But hey, better get my clam out of the way up front, then relax and play the rest of the show. It went really well, but I would argue that Tom made a few ducks and turns that weren’t on the rehearsal mp3s.

Next up: Gram Rabbit, our pals from the high desert town of Joshua Tree. They’re all dressed up in outrageous costumes, kind of like the Village People performing a magic act in the High Chaparral quarter of Outer Space. Jess, their lead singer is wearing a very cute little white top hat ribboned on to her noggin at a cocky angle. They had a number of technical difficulties. Between the Korg Triton sending out digital barfing sounds at an SPL of 120 dB and their laptops firing off the wrong songs, they were fighting electronic chimera all night. But they didn’t let it rattle their studied cool. Except when the drummer jumped out of his seat and lunged at the bass player. We thought there would be blows. No such luck.

If you can imagine my pals Count Zero fronted by a Deadpan Cowgirl From Venus, that’s sort of what it was like. They had a song about being ready to die in the desert that made me really sad. I can’t find it online, but here’s one in the big old key of E. They were really loud too, but to Ofer’s credit, I could hear everything and understand the words and everything. The Rabbits had a VJ that sprayed them with ponderous images that coordinated with the songs. Quite an operation. They played – of course – White Rabbit for an encore. Jess, here’s my suggestion, should you ever see it: ditch the keyboard. The lines you’re playing don’t contribute that much. You’re trapped behind it. Get out there and front this band, dammit, and hire an old sod (like me) to play key lines in the back, if you really miss them. You’re trapped behind that keyboard. Free yourself.

Well, the Rotary posse split after the Rabbits, and we all went to a really trendy pizza place on Allen Street, where we dissected the show, the Rabbits, New York real estate, and about six pizzas. After that, Chris, Shannan and I chilled at Wee Molly’s over on Eighth Ave for an hour, watching rugby.

I made my way to Penn Station and caught the 3:15 (yes, AM) train to Boston. It was packed. I found a seat and fell asleep before I could give my ticket to the conductor. I managed to snooze all the way to Kingston RI.

I got home – laptop, bass and all – at 8:15, exactly 25 hours and fifteen minutes after I had left. That was my day yesterday. Today I have rock-lag. My meal schedule is off, the room feels kind of floaty to me, and my eyes hurt. I have wounded feelings about growing old in this young rock culture, but the feelings pass and are replaced with optimism.

Rock until you die.