Thursday, May 31, 2007
Kurt Swinghammer: Jacobsonean Keeper of Toronto's Cultural Flame
I am perhaps inordinately fond of Kurt. I used to follow him back when he and Ron Sexsmith were running an even keel, showbiz-wise. They'd put on shows at C'est What? and joke that the plus to performing together was being able to call themselves SexHammer.
Kurt seems to have slowed down a bit in the aural arts department, while picking up the pace as a visual artist. He is a delightful wielder of the air- and paint-brush, but for those of us who have seen him playing guitar and singing on stage, it's a bitter pill to watch him step back, however temporarily, from the scene. Anyone who had a campfire facility with the guitar knew this guy was freaky magic, but for some reason that never seemed to translate in the studio (the way it does for, say, Richard Thompson).
Ah, well. He is very much a creative force to be reckoned with. Here is his website, and this is the T-shirt (and bag) design he did for Sam The Record Man:
Feral Pigs Meat The Press
Link from ALD.
Gratuitous Hockey Post
If Sens goalie Ray Emery weren't on fire, the Senators would have been taken to the cleaners. Neidermeyer was spectacular to watch, and there were moments in the second and third period where you could see the Senators trying to tease apart the Anaheim defense. Too little, too late. I'll be curious to see what sort of strategic changes coach Bryan Murray makes. For the regular season he and the Senators have been capable of readjusting their play with breathtaking results. My hunch, and here I must resort to the precise language of acute analysis, is something will "click" for the Sens and they'll win three straight games. But will it be the next three?
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
Sam The Record Man
"I said it, I did it!" And now Sam is closing shop. When I worked downtown I made it a weekly habit to visit Sam's to see what was new in music. Sam's was one of those very old, labrynthine buildings that you could spend days exploring. I don't think they ever sent anything back to the distributors, because I picked up some mighty obscure discs that had been out of print for years.
These days I download via eMusic and (very rarely) that would-be monopolizer of all things digital. In some ways the download is a boon for music lovers: I'm listening to all sorts of stuff I would never have bothered with if it had meant buying something wrapped in plastic. Recent download treats include wax.on wax.off, Camera Obscura and Mavis Staples. Just to drive the point home, I've even given Arcade Fire my attention, a band whose music is not at all to my taste. It's good exposure for the artists, and a worthwhile experience for me.
But do I ever miss the package! Heck, I miss the LP! Back in the day I used to pore over every little detail on an album cover, sometimes with a magnifying glass, hoping to further decode the cypher of significance within. Those were the glorious days of rumoured backmasking and other mischief. Every album was like a ticking bomb that you unpacked and explored at your own peril. The world — your world, our world — could change!
Well, the world has changed and now it's just the music and nothing else, which I suppose should be more than enough. But some days it seems like little more than a bunch of ones and zeros. And I miss the event of stepping into a creaky old building that required a person to walk up a set of stairs, then down a few steps, then take a left and another left before you came into a small room that stocked that über Cool Jazz masterpiece, Poitier Meets Plato.
It's another era, and I'm not going to stand in its way. But you'd better believe we're already missing the fun and discovery of the era that's rapidly fading.
Tuesday, May 29, 2007
Sekine: The Best Bikes In The World
A week later, my father took the bike to a local shop for a quick tune-up and was informed that he'd miraculously scored Sekine's top-of-the-line racer: the gearing was more competitive than the store-bought models, and the frame was much, much lighter. When I finally knew what was what, I had to grudgingly admit my brother's bike was quite the prize: chrome moly double-butted tubing, alloy cotter-less cranks ... the evidence of its superiority to everyone else's bicycle piled higher and higher.
Unfortunately for my brother and his snazzy bike, his generation of lads were the genesis of the BMX scene. They didn't want fancy gear-shifting bikes; they wanted a tiny, single-speed bike they could ride off the roof of their father's garage without breaking anything more serious than a collar-bone. Once again my parents took him to the police auction. This time they came back with a monster: a bike that must have weighed 100 pounds, but had a freaky-looking spring that acted as a shock between the rear wheel and the seat post. It was a one-of-a-kind piece of work, and its total cost (including a can of silver Tremclad paint) was $25.
Every kid on the block wanted to ride that thing. (Say, bro — surely you've got pictures?!)
By then I had reached that stage of late puberty when all manner of crazy schemes are worth pursuing. A friend wanted to cycle to the West Coast, so I bought the Sekine off my brother. I cleaned it up, put a new seat on it, rebuilt one of the wheels, then promptly lost interest.
Yesterday, while scrounging around for a garden spade amid all the piles of trash in our garage, I stumbled over this:
I must have strapped it to the car the summer my new wife and I took a road trip to meet the family. For the last 13 years I've shlepped it from apartment, to house, to house ... just because I couldn't bring myself to throw it away. Yesterday I inflated the tires (at least 20 years old) and cautiously took it for a spin. It's in surprisingly good shape.
After a quick Google, it appears this is probably Sekine's penultimate model, the SHT (the derailleurs are Shimano 600s). I'm missing the chain guard for the rear wheel; my cycling friend persuaded me to throw it away because "it just adds weight." D'oh! But I've still got the coveted "ornate head badge":
Mid-life craziness comes in many forms. Here I am with these two grand, old bicycles, and I'm reading stuff like this, and I'm starting to think I'm not so keen on getting something new as I am on restoring something old ... even if I am all thumbs when it comes to this stuff.
Gratuitous Hockey Post
Monday, May 28, 2007
Bicycles Meet the Aspirational New Urbanist
Apropos to the magazine's intention of being beautiful, topical and timely, Monocle has already branded a bicycle, as built by Sweden's Skeppshult Bicycles. It looks like this:
For reasons that elude me, the Monocle writers seem especially smitten by single-gear bicycles. A quickie article surveys four bicycle manufacturers from Norway, Japan, Denmark and Finland, all of whom build models my late grandfather could relate to. Well ... except for Norway's Alta, which looks like this:
I suppose there is utilitarian appeal to a single-gear bicycle (near-zero maintenance). Personally, ever since I received a 5-speed bicycle for my 12th birthday I've seen no reason for looking back. These single-gear bicycles are a novelty that bring to mind a summer moment from the mid-80s. I was sitting in the car with my mother, waiting for my father to finish some banking. There was a bicycle shop next to the bank, and a woman pedaled up to it on a brown bicycle with a milk-basket on the front. Her outfit — cable-knit sweater, long corduroy skirt with woolen knee-high socks — was brown as well. She was smiling primly, and when she lowered the bicycle's kick-stand and entered the store, my mother quietly remarked, "She thinks she looks European."
Yes, well: if I thought I looked European, I wouldn't waste money on any of these continental fiddlers. Instead, I'd go straight to the authority — Batuvus — and purchase their no-nonsense Personal Bike Delivery. And I wouldn't mount it unless I was smoking hand-rolled Drum tobacco.
Now that's a bicycle!
In the interests of reportorial fairness, I should mention the Monocle bicycle is a 5-speed. Still, it adheres to the antique fetish aesthetic of the other bikes. In other words, it thinks it looks European.
Friday, May 25, 2007
Let me just lead this geek horse to water...
It's been 30 years since I read it, and I still recall the narrator announcing at the outset that he liked the feel of socks inside his boots — when he could afford 'em.
After that, I was just one more adolescent who'd been roped and hog-tied. Now fess up, pardner: what was yours?
Twenty minutes later and 20 dollars lighter, I took stock of where I was, who I was, and what I was listening to. I came to some obvious conclusions:
(1) Comic book store clerks come in two models: those who are offended by your pitiful existence, and those who are keen to help you. Very, very keen. I think I prefer the former to the latter.
(2) When I exited the store, I smiled at an attractive young woman passing by. Her response was unmistakable. I hadn't received a glower like that since I tried the same stunt coming out of a comic book store a quarter-century earlier. What with my middle-aged proportions, my sensible family car and bag full of comic books, I couldn't have been less sexy if I'd been dangling a ring of brightly colored plastic keys. (If you're wondering why I'm smiling at attractive young women, it's because I smile at everyone. It's a trait I developed after moving to a village.)
(3) A Lecture on Geek Mythology by wax.on wax.off (eMusic here) is probably this summer's soundtrack. It's infectious, riff-driven loser pop-punk, somewhat akin to early Green Day. My daughters would love it, if I gave them the chance to listen to it. Alas for them, the "offensive lyrics" warning will be taken seriously by me ("Santa Is A Pervert" is a song that fully lives up to its title). With that last caveat, I wholly endorse DarkoV's recommendation.
And speaking of geek mythology...
Happy Star Wars Day!
A little link-love: lots of fan-boys are linking to this piece by James Lileks, and for good reason: he achieves a crucial balance between public embarrassment and private joy that most of us 40-year-old Freaks of the Force are striving for. Yahmdallah has read all six pounds of The Making Of Star Wars, and has left me wishing his scanner was up and running. And the BBC has compiled a list of 30 facts most of us already know about Star Wars. Still, it's good to be reminded that Star Wars was beat out by Annie Hall as the Academy's Best Picture Of 1977. Feh. If you remain unsure as to which is the movie of greater cultural value, I ask you: just how many blogs are devoted to parsing over the dialogue between Woody Allen and Diane Keaton?
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
Gratuitous Hockey Post
But who would waste a thought on the Leaves right now, when the league's two best teams are gearing up for a proper showdown? Not I.
Sunday, May 20, 2007
Geez Louise, geez!
Up until that point, I'd been thinking, Well, well. Either geez is finding its groove, or I'm finally catching on, or we're experiencing a pleasant confluence of the two. Lots of nifty riffings off of Walter Wink's train of thought, which I rather like. Then I see myself quoted: "geez has been a mostly ho-hum experience." Ouch. Oh well: I'm gratified to see geez printing other, even nastier opinions. And I'm even more gratified to be following its progress as a mischief-making mag. (I still advocate the interview as one of the fastest ways to get an idea across.)
Is there really a "Culture of Outburst"?
To that end, I believe I may just bite the bullet and read Cormac McCarthy's The Road. This is a book I've taken pains to avoid even though I admit to reading and enjoying his Border Trilogy and Blood Meridian. Lest I leave anyone with the impression that I'm just pulling a Franzen, I'll state my reasons outright: reading the selections being quoted by reviewers (here and here) has been enough for me to fight back tears. I'm not sure the three women in this house are up to dealing with a blubbering pater familias, but no matter: I shall soldier on, and so shall they.
As soon as I've landed my copy, it will join the others "On The Floor." My blogular thoughts are bound to follow.
Labels: book review
Friday, May 18, 2007
Exercise In Futility?
When I was a 16-year-old yoot, I would occasionally head downtown with some friends to Winnipeg's YMCA to make some ruckus in the weight room. One evening a middle-aged gent showed up, did a few warm-up exercises, then stood in front of one of the mirrors and performed 20 minutes of what was then referred to as "calisthenics." (The Canadian Armed Forces had a routine that my father(!) adhered to, called 5BX.)
One middle-aged guy in decent shape performing a 20-year-old fitness routine, while my buddies and I (each of us weighing in at 145 lbs, dripping wet) were doing our utmost to swell up to Franco Columbo proportions. He comes to mind because now I'm a middle-aged guy, sticking to a light weight routine I was taught in high school: five upper-body exercises (curls, reverse curls, upright row, shoulder press, push-ups). Back in the day, the idea was to perform five sets of 12 reps using a light barbell (I don't think I ever did more than 40 lbs) within seven and a half minutes. When I was a 16-year-old lad that wasn't impossible, but at 42 I'm inclined to stretch that to the 20-minute mark.
There was a routine for the legs, too. I can't recall it exactly, but it seemed rather Soviet in design — lots of jumping and hopping on one leg. Rather than tempt cardiovascular seizure, I'll finish the work-out with a brisk walk. The idea isn't so much to build a bod for the beach as it is to keep limber enough so that a day of raking the lawn doesn't cripple me for the next two weeks, while adhering to a regime that doesn't take up more than two hours a week.
Of course, any fitness expert could take one look at my routine and point out a dozen blind spots. I could point out a few, myself: there's not much there for the back, for instance. I tried doing some chin-ups the other day, and quickly realized my arms were up to the task, but the back-end of my shoulders (the "lats") were not. But it's a flexible platform. A few tweaks to it, and I'm sure I'll be doing what this guy does before the summer is over. Or not.
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
Gratuitous Hockey Post
"Drugged by an overdose of history"
Monday, May 14, 2007
Alice Cooper: Alive & Kicking
I've been giving his last three albums — Dragontown, The Eyes of Alice Cooper, Dirty Diamonds — more than their due of airplay. They represent an interesting musical transformation. Dragontown is a concept album decked out in contempo-gothic trappings, an attempt by Alice to prove his currency among rabble-rousers like Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie. It's likeable enough, in its Hieronymous - Bosch - does - a - comic - book way; Cooper evokes both chills and chuckles with his portraits of damned souls (I particularly enjoy "It's Much Too Late," the lament of a pious doofus who can't figure out which god he's managed to offend).
I like Eyes better, 'cos Cooper steps away from the kids in the sandbox and reasserts himself as a rowdy old man of rock and roll. He glories in trailer trash grandiosity ("What Do You Want From Me?", "Backyard Brawl"), acknowledges his age ("Between High School & Old School") then bangs the drum in praise of his pedigree (tearing up the stage with Ziggy and Iggy and the MC5, in "Detroit City"). Not all of the songs have traction, but the ones that do (particularly the three mentioned) really tear up the turf.
At this point I should admit I wouldn't have bothered with Coop at all if he hadn't posted these albums on eMusic, a subscription site that offers terrific value for your money — so long as you know what you're looking for. I found myself at the end of a month, staring at unused credits and unsure of what to try next. I downloaded Eyes, then liked it so much I went with the other two as well.
Of the bunch, Dirty Diamonds is the stand-out winner. Cooper struts from one tawdry platform to the next with absolute confidence, bringing his losers and goons to life and garnishing them with flourishes of wit that generate smiles without the burden of too much self-consciousness. In other words, it's a hoot: rev-engine rock & roll that allows the listener to forget his age for a few minutes as he squeezes out the last rep in the gym, or jumps around the living room with his daughters.
Yes, Detroit doesn't just outperform Toronto at hockey, it does so musically as well (with, perhaps, the sole exception of Rush).
Gratuitous Hockey Post
On the other side of the rink is Detroit. It's difficult for me to muster much enthusiasm for any team that has established a Stanley Cup "legacy" within my living memory, but occasionally I make an exception for Detroit. Detroit exists as a loud red rebuke to Toronto's inability to produce a hockey team that matters.
Toronto — the city that once proclaimed itself "World Class." Feh. If you can't produce a sports team capable of world class results, you don't deserve the moniker. Yet here are the Leaves ... sorry: Leafs — with the NHL's most reliable fan base, generating far and away the league's largest income from ticket sales and merchandising, and they can't even make the play-offs.
Toronto is a "nice" city — unlike Detroit which has never held any "world class" pretensions. Half of Detroit looks like a war zone, the other half looks like it wants to pick up and move somewhere nice. Class, race, architecture ... in the arts and entertainment and on any level you'd care to name, Detroit is a city that fights with itself. I don't know how such a scrappy city can produce a hockey team that's been equal parts muscle and elegance. By rights, Detroit, not Philadelphia ("City of Brotherly Love" — ha!), should have been the natural home of the Broad Street Bullies. On this side of the border Toronto lovingly feathers a nest for its brood of pampered hockey duds while the rest of the league fights to stay alive.
Where was I? Oh yeah: not sure who to cheer for, 'cos I love 'em both. Local Leafs fans are backing Buffalo, a team I'll cheer for only when they're playing against Toronto. So I'm quietly hoping to see Ottawa square off against Anaheim ... and bring home the Stanley Cup.
Friday, May 11, 2007
Grade School Musical
Any guesses as to who fits which profile?
Sunday, May 06, 2007
Bicycles vs. Cars: Which Is The Better Value?
We talked bicycles for a bit, and she said her father once did a value exercise: he figured out how much we paid per pound for bicycle technology, then contrasted that with the per pound price of automobile technology. Strictly on this basis alone, the car is a vastly better value.
Here's how this exercise works in my circumstances, in Canadian dollars: the sticker price for a new Toyota Yaris is $14,995. Its curbside weight is roughly 2,080 lbs. That works out to about $7.20 per lb.
The sticker price for a new Fisher HKEK is $1,299 (Cdn). Let's say it weighs 50 lbs (bearing in mind it's probably a shade lighter). That's a value of $26 per lb.
Of course, the sticker price is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to automotive costs: it doesn't take long for gas to add up, and were we to keep our car for 20 years it's likely the cost of maintenance would exceed the sticker price. Still, if we contrast the resources that are poured into a car's manufacture vs. that of a bicycle's, this is quite a staggering disparity. (Tangential note: using the Inflation Calculator, the bicycle I bought for $900 twenty years ago ought to cost me $1600 today. So it could be argued that bicycle values are improving, albeit very slowly.)
Friday, May 04, 2007
Retro-Aspirational vs. Hopeless-Aspirational
I kid him about it. He grins and says, “Yeah, I'm just an old gear-head!”
Well, that may be the case, but I have to wonder. I haven't seen him attempt anything more involved than a wash-and-wax. Is that all it takes to be a gear-head these days? Some afternoon I'm going to pipe up: “Sir, I've known gear-heads. Gear-heads have been friends of mine. And you, sir, are no gear-head.”
Neither am I, but I used to hang around a few. In high school I had a friend who rebuilt a vintage Ford. When I first heard the news, I swung by his place to see what he was up to. In his back yard he had a rusty hulk resting on cinder blocks. The engine and transmission were gone, the cab was gutted — it didn't even have doors. I watched him as he climbed in and out of this iron carrion, then finally decided I should say the exact opposite of what I was thinking: “Well, it doesn't look entirely hopeless.”
He stopped what he was doing, and squinted at me. Finally he looked back at the object of his affection. “Not at all,” he said, and got back to work. I still know next to nothing about such things, but I was truly impressed with the flashy, rumbling, tire-squealing vehicle he finally pulled together a year or two later. He drove that thing like he was cock of the walk, and I figured, “Good on 'im. He bloody well should.”
Cut to the present. There's a kid who rides an Orange County Chopper to my daughter's school. I'm talking about a bicycle, now. He wheezed and teetered past me the other day, barely missing my toes with his fat tires. “Cool wheels,” I said. He mumbled thanks, and my older daughter rolled her eyes. “He's such a jerk,” she said.
My daughter might be harsh in her assessment (as 10-year-old girls are prone to be), but I'll silently back her up on this. After all, what's this kid done to deserve attention except buy something flashy? In fact, let me just make a blanket generalization. Television shows like Orange County Choppers and West Coast Choppers can be entertaining to watch, but when the final product is a one-of-a-kind bike that Billy Joel is going to park in a garage full of Hogs, I have to wonder: what's the big freakin' deal? What say we devote a show to Billy Joel's landscaper next?
Hot Rod Culture. If you can make it, I'm impressed. If all you can do is buy it, well, not so much.
I'm in a very tiny minority on this issue. I'd say half my town owns an Orange County T-shirt, and most of these people couldn't be bothered to wash their cars. That's aspirational marketing for you: you can't afford Billy Joel's motorbike, wouldn't care for it if you did, but you wish you could, so you wear the shirt.
Or you buy the bicycle. No kidding: Orange County Choppers ”makes” bicycles for adults.
I joked about riding a My Little Pony bicycle, but honestly: I'd rather be seen pedalling something with pink streamers than an Orange County bicycle. Not that My Little Pony is offering such fare for grown-ups — yet. But Schwinn is. Not only does Schwinn make the Orange County bicycle, it's also resurrected the “Pea Picker.”
I'm with DarkoV on this front: you can't go back. "Rosebud" is a fine thing to meditate on, but there's no point in dropping a bunch of money on what is finally just an accessory to a pleasant memory. Unless you're going to build it yourself — from scratch, of course.
Thursday, May 03, 2007
My First Bicycle
I've Googled a bit, but this is the only picture I've turned up. It's from an eBay sale, no longer listed. This model is older than the one I had. It's also a "girl's" model, which surely accounts for its excellent condition. And I never had a headlight. But the handlebars ("sissy bars") are similar, as is the seat design (mine was a glittery blue, with white stripes down the sides). Curious to note the Winnipeg license plate on the front wheel. Were Garrys made locally (as in, "Fort Garry")?
A few weeks before I received my bike, some neighborhood kids got me pedalling on a small CCM children's bike. The construction of that bicycle, in contrast to the Garry, was closer to what mountain bikes are today -- designed, in other words, to distribute the child's centre of gravity between the pedals, seat and handlebars. A banana seat puts the child's weight squarely on the back wheel, and makes balancing trickier.
It was bitter medicine for me to relearn how to ride a bicycle. When my father finally allowed me on the streets, then accompanied me on his bicycle, I shrieked at him to quit swerving toward me. Funny how it's my younger daughter who now shrieks at me.
Wednesday, May 02, 2007
The Incredible 'Wow!'
Darrell's an elegant and mischievous writer, he's an imaginative inventor of characters and narrative lines, and he's an inspired evoker of young-male experience ... The result is a small miracle of unpushy quirkiness and sweetness. Reading "Youthful Desires" is like hanging out -- and just for the pleasure of it -- with a longtime friend.
Did Kerouac feel this good after reading his NYTBR rave? I think not. Not just praise, but also Michael's usual thought-provocation in one dandy package, here.
But wait: there's more!
Stereotypes don’t apply here. These stories sting with contemporary dilemmas, ache with love broken by culture, tickle with small comforts. His short stories are not dashed off in incoherent moments of self-indulgence, but worked out over decades with much reflection ... Darrell’s gift is both his empathy for ordinary guys in tough trade-offs and his grip on the big problems that theologians take on. In my opinion, that’s the heart of ministry AND the heart of literature: “Where do we come from? Where are we going? What must we do to be saved?” -- Mary Scriver
It’s been a long time since I’ve read any fiction, and about as long since I’ve read anything not directly related to doing my job. I wasn’t sure how it would go, but it seemed no longer had I opened the book - all of a sudden I was on page 99 -- Preacher Dan
If you folks have enjoyed reading his alter-ego's blog, you will enjoy his book. I encourage you all to buy it -- DarkoV
[H]e's a wonderful, funny, evocative writer, as we all knew, and that's true of his fiction as well ... reminded me of the late Breece D'J Pancake -- Philip Christman
My heartfelt thanks to one and all! Now, if I can just get my head through the door, I believe I'll tend to the laundry...
Tuesday, May 01, 2007
Training Wheels: A Misnomer If Ever There Was One
Fortunately, there's a better way to get kids used to the balance of a bicycle. Lower the seat so their feet can rest securely on the ground, then remove the pedals. The kid pushes the bicycle, like she would a scooter, and very quickly gets a sense of its balance. My girls are cautious by nature, so it took a couple of afternoons of this before they got the hang of it. But I've seen other kids master it within an hour.