Dear Market Basket Leadership

To the current leadership of Market Basket, its public relations firm, and its owners:

I am writing to confirm and reinforce your awareness that much of the population of Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire wakes each morning eager to hear the news that you have decided to accept Arthur T. Demoulas’ offer and that you have agreed to sell the operation to him.

My personal hopes were dashed this morning when I read that Mr. Gooch and Ms. Thornton have released a statement that threatens to terminate employees that do not return to their jobs by August 4. It is becoming apparent that you, the leadership of Market Basket, are committed to adopting the traditional hard-line management posture we see time and time again in labor conflicts, and by doing so you are willing to risk the negative consequences of short term personnel decisions. Why? Probably because the longer view might be that once this dispute settles down, the revenue stream will be re-established and things will return to a semblance of normal operation.

The problem here for you is me.

I will refuse to shop at Market Basket if you remain committed to this hard-line stance. In fact, I will refuse to shop at Market Basket unless you decide to sell the firm to Arthur T. Demoulas. That’s the truth of it, plain and simple.

You have another problem, and that is: I am not alone.

Everyone I know feels the same way. At this point, like it or not, you are perceived as “the bad guys” in this conflict by the general public in New England. It’s not just your employees who are staying away. It’s us, the stubborn, patriotic New Englanders who love to get their back up when it comes to a principled fight.

The way out for you could be very simple: figure out how to bite the bullet and accept Arthur T.’s offer.

Think about it – it would be a win for both sides. You’d be fairly compensated for the sale, and this entire mess would be off your hands. Operations at Market Basket actually would return to normal. I would dare to say that people would flock to the store in droves after the announcement of a sale to “Artie T.” just to celebrate.

My forecast of the alternative: you would find that you would never regain the level of popularity and profitability that you saw prior to Arthur T. Demoulas’ termination as CEO. People like myself will stay away on principle. Forever.

I want the old Market Basket back. The one that felt like a good citizen in the community, where the employees were happy and were treated like people, not ‘resources’.

Please consider my views and advice, and thank you for your time.

Most cordially,

James M. Johnson
Somerville, Massachusetts

Zappa’s Birthday, Solstice 2013

SOMERVILLE – Last time I did the math, about a minute ago, Frank Zappa ceased living on this plane 20 years ago. I was 36 years old at the time, and I felt it was extremely unjust that one of my heroes had been taken away from me too soon. I had hopes of meeting Frank one day; distant hopes to be sure, but at 36 I thought, “hey, you never know, it could happen.” Like I would have anything meaningful to say to Frank Zappa beyond “dig those shoes, man…”

I wrote a letter to him a few years before that, and not knowing where to send it, I sent it off to Barfko-Swill in Los Angeles and never got a reply. It was a humble note telling him that his music had inspired me to be a composer and that I felt in his debt for the example he set for me, for us, for the world. Something along those lines. Pretty usual stuff, and of course I didn’t expect a reply. I just felt it was important to let him know that there were young composers out there who considered his work critically essential to their own musical vocabulary and style.


James Kraus and I did our annual Zappa Tribute radio show on WZBC in Newton yesterday – you can hear the whole show here for a while until James takes the link down. I spoke with caller who challenged me to play some of the new live material that’s being released by the Zappa family, in particular the Road Tapes, Venue #2 CD that came out this last Hallowe’en, instead of “the same old stuff we’ve all heard a million times.” OK, true, we play from my collection every year, which is limited, and we tend to play the same old tracks we like, but in my defense, this only happens once a year, and unless you’re one of those people out there scouring the ‘net for new Zappa material, none of this stuff is getting played on the air at all, period. Better the good old stuff than no stuff at all; but I get your point, whoever you are, and I promise to take up the challenge to find some juicy tidbits for next year’s show. I’m glad you were listening, and I’d welcome further conversation with you.

You can imagine that, in this interconnected day and age, James and I were able to instantly (or as instantly as possible, given our advanced age and lack of iPhone chops) fact-check any assertions we or our audience made. As a result, I scanned dozens of articles and interviews yesterday, and one stuck in my craw a little and I’d like to address it here for a minute or two.

I play in and arrange for Johnny Blazes and the Pretty Boys, a local band led by myself and my kid, Johnny Blazes. Among my parental duties, I raised Johnny on Frank’s music, and to date our band has played covers of “Dirty Love” and “Goblin Girl”, the latter this last Hallowe’en of course. Every once in a while I wonder if Gail Zappa is going to come crashing down on us with a cease-and-desist letter, but we don’t play these songs often, so it’s not a big worry.

I do have a problem with the following quote attributed to Gail by NPR:

“Somebody goes out there, plays music — it’s not played very well; it doesn’t sound anything like what the composer intended,” she says. “And they are telling the audience that’s never heard it before that this is Frank Zappa’s music. It’s not. It’s some wretched version of it.”

(from “Frank Zappa: A ‘Lumpy’ Legacy by Joel Rose”, April 9, 2009)

I have a question. I want to know who’s out there stopping all the wretched versions of Bach and Mozart that are getting played by people without licences who certainly aren’t making noises anything like what the composer intended. After a certain point – I would argue the moment immediately after creation – the artist loses control of their work and it becomes a part of the world. Certainly, a composer can travel the world performing their work as intended until they die, in an effort to preserve the original sound and intention of their music; but history teaches us that works that survive the ages change with time. Think hard now: are there recordings of the Mozart Requiem that sound EXACTLY the way Mozart intended it to sound?

Didn’t think so.

Next question: in one hundred years, will people still be able to hear Frank Zappa’s music at all? If so, one what platform, using which technology – or dare I ask, which sense organs? Think carefully before answering.

I’m tempted to put together a Zappa Tribute band just to defy Gail’s assertion that we need a license to rock out on Frank’s music. Stay tuned.



Last night the lockdown lifted, and I decided it was time for a walk.

Jennifer had the car, and I was facing the task of getting from Somerville to Jamaica Plain in order to feed Penny. The T was stopped all day, and I had been quietly psyching myself in to the possibility of hoofing all 10 miles of the journey, planning my route to strategically avoid any lockdown hotspots.

At 6:15 in the evening, the Governor lifted the stay-inside order, and we were all free. Facebook lit up with folks appealing for company at their local watering holes. The T started running again. I thought to myself, well, if the suspect is still alive and uncaught, maybe he’ll find a way out of this jam and go disappear in New York City where he can get lost in the crowds. I lightened up because it meant I could probably walk through Harvard Square unimpeded now. With the T running, I could walk for an hour, then grab a bus or a train.

The weather report had been calling for some form of rain for the last couple of days. I’ve learned to mistrust the actual timing of these predictions, the weather patterns here seem to twist and turn all the time. Unless a Nor’easter is bearing down on us like a Fung Wah bus afire, predictions of rain can rapidly become meaningless. Actual conditions were mid 60s, windy and sort of spitting mist and gusting 10-15 knows in my face. Just the thing to set the mood as the sun set and I headed towards Cambridge.


Harvard Square was trying to shake off the eeriness that had hung over it all day, but not succeeding. A few joints were open, but most eating and drinking establishments were closed. I saw an inkjet sign on one door: “This Building Is In Lock Down.” Bartley’s was dark, as was the Hong Kong. The few people I ran across were talking about the fugitive, checking their phones for information, looking for a place to grab a meal. I decided to roll the dice against the weather and keep going to Central Square.

I began to realize that I was hitting some familiar haunts on this extended stroll. I passed what until recently was Sandy’s Music. It’s now Monster Mike’s guitars, I think, which is a good thing, sort of keeps the property in the family so to speak, having it remain an independent music store. I regret never having gone to one of Sandy’s Monday night jams. We can’t live forever, though, and Sandy’s fighting some health issues they say, and can’t keep the store. So, I touched the window and said a wish and kept moving.

There were plenty of people in Central, and I peeked in a few bar windows to see if there were any major developments in the Marathon Bomber manhunt. I rambled by a few classic creepy types that seem to hover in the corners of the bus stop, looking for a handout. Decided to keep going – I now wanted to cross the Mass Ave bridge on foot, and I felt like I had it in me.

More closed shops. The Middle East was dark – I wondered if I had ever seen it closed before. The All-Asia, seemed open, but maybe only for friends. Asgard was closed, and I has murky thoughts about all the fallen Vikings that were going to be turned away tonight. Trying to find a punch line, but not having any luck.

The MIT campus was very silent, and I moved through it respectfully. The wounds of the night before were still heavy in the air, though I did pass a dorm that was having a barbecue outdoors in its little quad. Must have been a lockdown lift party. The sun was down and night was falling.


I stopped on the Mass Ave bridge – which incidentally is named the Harvard Bridge – and took some pictures of Boston with my phone. As I started walking again, a caravan of humvees shot past me, heading in to Boston. I had seen a number of cops cars speeding towards Watertown on Storrow Drive, so it wasn’t surprising to see the caravan turn right on Beacon Street on the other end of the bridge.

By now I had firmly decided that my mission was to visit a few old haunts, like a runner tagging bases. I was also talking to Simone by this time. Walking at night and talking to dead relatives is something I have been doing all my life, it seems. That’s one thing I talked to Simone about as I walked, what it felt like growing up in Ohio and talking to my Dad’s ghost under the huge oak and chestnut trees after the sun had gone down.

I passed some more bars on the Boston side, joints that I knew by different names back then. TV sets were showing that law enforcement had located the suspect and the shrink-wrapped boat he had been hiding in. I knew the drama would come to an end before I got home.

At the Berklee College, I decided that I was still feeling too claustrophobic to be able to sit on the Orange Line or the 39 bus, so I headed to the Fens by way of a detour up Haviland Street. The weight of my long stay in Boston fell on me mightily as I passed the building where I first lived in a shared apartment, then by the remains of TC’s Lounge, which was MY BAR for so many years. Without a doubt, TC’s had the best jukebox in town, and I never left there without having downed multiple cheap beers. I looked inside the door, and it’s had its guts ripped out, mostly. I got angry. Walking the rest of Haviland I got even angrier. When I first moved here, the apartments were filled with Berklee students blowing their horns and blasting their electric guitars and record players. Now the street is sterile and silent and clean and genteel. It makes me sad every time I pass by there now. The place has lost its character.

I paid my respects to the 1040 building, rounding another base. The Fens, Machine, Boylston Street where there used to be trashy rehearsal spaces – now it’s all built up so that the richest of the gentry buying up condos can actually peer down into Fenway Park from the upper floors. My feet were getting tired, but I had now taken the turn in my path that would make it very difficult to hook up with public transportation for another few miles.

I took the Riverway path that goes along the Muddy River. It was very dark by then, and that path might be a good place to get mugged, because it’s unlit. On the other hand, there are a number of spots where one can just jump off the path and be instantly back in well-lit civilization. It was the perfect place to talk to Simone some more. Eventually, the path leads to Beth Israel Deaconess and its brightly lit emergency room, a place that will always fill me with sadness. Today, it occurred to me that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is probably in the same trauma ICU where Simone lay.

I made my way up the Jamaicaway on the dark bicycle path until I got to Jamaica Pond, another landmark, another haunt, where I learned to sail with my daughters lounging on the dingy with aggressive boredom – especially since we couldn’t whistle the slightest breeze on those 90 degree days.

Boston has changed a lot over time, but so has Cleveland, New York City, Paris, everyplace in the world. It’s never the same, and whether it was better or worse back then is not the point. Keep breathing, keep hoping, keep loving, that’s the point. What lies ahead is there. Like walking a long distance, you will arrive at your destination after seeing all the sights along the way, carrying your past on your shoulders like a pair of invisible wings.

Made it home, safe.

Diagnosis, part 2

The stomach biopsy came back negative, which is good news.

The colonoscopy results are not as cheerful, but could be much worse. The polyp that was removed was an actual polyp, as opposed to a hyperplastic (benign) polyp. My understanding is, once the nasty-type polyp is removed there’s a chance that it might grow back. I’m booked for another colonoscopy in July, so that the doc can verify that he got it all on the first pass. If the polyp grows back, that’s more of a cause for alarm, as the growth might be cancerous. I get the feeling that I’m going to reach gold status on Flexible Sphygmoidoscope Airlines in the next couple of years.

All in all, I feel a little better about my outlook. I have changed my dietary habits quite a bit, though I still have more work to do in that department. I have definitely upped my fiber intake, and I am carefully avoiding most of the trigger foods on the list. I had a relapse the other night and indulged in some plain pizza – and paid the price later on that same night. I guess the pizza party is over. Time for a kale and quinoa party, I guess…

Son of a daughter of the Depression era

I just noticed something strange.

I’m about to embark on some musical transcribing, which will involve consuming several sheets of Berklee 12-stave paper (M1). I find that I still have a gut reaction to using a lot of staff paper – my gosh, can I afford it? What if Berklee stops making M1 pads and I can’t get them anymore? I like that paper so much – what if I’m using up the last of it?

This is plainly ridiculous. I’ve survived the days since it was a hard decision between buying a pack of smokes or a pad of paper to do homework on.

Sometimes I feel like I’m the last, or next-to-last, generation who will need actual paper and pencil to assist me in my mental rummaging. There’s something bittersweet about that.

Enough procrastination. Time for ear training homework.

James Davidson Johnson

Without the headlines, without the retrospectives, without the finally-released-after-thirty-years interview tapes, without the eight-minute segment on NPR, comes the forty-seventh anniversary of my father’s death.

When I tell people that I remember him, they are often surprised. He left us when I was five and my brother Bob was two. I know that after all these years, what memories I have are mostly senses and not clear recollections of sequences of events. But I can tell a few stories: I remember much of the day that Dad took me fishing for the very first time. I caught a good old Lake Erie perch, I’m pretty sure. Dad was so proud he snatched the fish out of the bucket he had brought it home in, rolled it in ink, and made an impression on the evening’s copy of the Painesville Telegraph. That fishprint hangs next to my piano these days.

I met silence at that young age. Silence was what came back when I listened for him after he was gone – the kind of silence that swallows up the noise of cars passing by on Mentor Avenue, turns what the grown-ups are saying from words into mere sounds. Stillness like the sound a snowflake makes when it tumbles gently through the air until it comes to rest. The wind would sing at me, but its music held only intuitive meaning. What filled my eyes when I thought about him was the mad, energetic, superbly confident universe of paint splatters and bold strokes that he left behind. I used to look at his signature and trace it with my eyes, imagining him signing his work.