Friday, September 29, 2017

Zen & The Art of Letting a $#@%ing PROFESSIONAL Do The Job

In 1986 I read Zen & The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

It changed my life.
"Gumption is the psychic gasoline that keeps the whole thing going. If you haven’t got it there’s no way the motorcycle can possibly be fixed. But if you have got it and know how to keep it there’s absolutely no way in this whole world that motorcycle can keep from getting fixed. It’s bound to happen. Therefore the thing that must be monitored at all times and preserved before anything else is the gumption."

It's overstatement to say I wish I'd never read that passage -- but only just.

Replacing tires and rear sprocket, with the help of a friend
and a piece of firewood. Note next victim, just off to the right.

I was smart enough to know I hadn't the "gumption" to fix a motorcycle. But, c'mon -- everyone should be able to fix a bicycle. No?


A short, and not-at-all-comprehensive, list of bicycle repair and maintenance jobs I have botched over the years:

  • Replacing brake cables
  • Replacing brake pads
  • Replacing derailleur cables
  • Replacing chain
  • Adjusting rear derailleur
  • Wheel truing

But the real pièce de résistance -- the King Of All Botched Repairs -- was disassembling and repacking of the bottom bracket.
How difficult could this be?
This was a personal "fail" on so many levels, I hardly know where to start. Perhaps most significantly, it was a job that didn't even need doing to begin with. Note to erstwhile bicycle mechanics -- George Mallory's motivation for climbing Everest does not apply to plumbing the bottom bracket mysteries of your $2,000 bicycle.

Long story short: for the next two decades the bottom bracket of my expensive bicycle was indeed a legitimate focus for the pros, because I had forced the bearing cups into the wrong mounts. "Huh. The bottom bracket is . . . well, it's not quite stripped, but it's pretty close," was a refrain I heard again and again.

Leave the bottom bracket alone, rookie -- I learned that lesson, alright. And beyond patching a flat and cleaning the chain, I pretty much left all the other adjustments to the pros. But then YouTube came along and made little jobs like adjusting the rear derailleur look so easy. Surely anyone can do that -- no?


Alright, let's (gurgle) shift gears, shall we?
Bike, meet Mike.
I met Mike Gorman last Easter at choir practise. He has a bike shop just a few miles down the road from me. When I first visited it, the experience was . . . I'm tempted to say "a gentle rebuke," but that's not quite right. Let's go with: a gentle reassurance that it can all be done the way it ought to be done.

Yesterday I took my rear wheel to him. He trued it in less than a minute. Then he pointed out where it was falling apart. "It should stay true for another week. Bring it back then and I'll use the spokes on a new rim."

I try not to indulge in "If I could go back in time" thinking, but I do wish I'd known of Spokes For Folks back when I made this purchase. Or, if I'm going to be that fanciful anyway, back when I made this purchase and proceeded to Zen-it-up with one ruinous "repair" after the next. Gorman's shop -- and his version of customer service -- is as close the Platonic Ideal as it gets on this plain.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

One more thing about Walter Becker...

I'm afraid I've made him out to be the Godfather of Shoegaze, when nothing could be further from the truth. Dude was funny, for real -- often (nearly always?) about matter that, when discussed soberly, induces squirms of discomfort among both the hip and the square.

"You're going to like this [music] in a year or so, so why don't you start now and save yourself some time?" -- Becker's college attitude toward the reluctant hep-cat. And if "Comedy is tragedy plus time"* Becker's (and Fagen's) impulse was to get the laughs in as early as possible.

Similarly, his musicianship -- Becker had his own guitar sound, and it suited his character. clean, precise, funny.

Yep: funny.

My friend says the first time he put Two Against Nature into the family CD player and gave it a spin, his six-year-old daughter burst out laughing when Becker ripped the guitar solo on "Gaslighting Abbie."**

Me too, kid.

*"Tragedy plus Time equals Comedy" -- Steve Allen, in 1957, apparently.

**"Gaslighting" -- in his reluctant pan of the albumNick Hornby rather grumpily cited this [to him, at that time] baffling, opaque term as an example of Fagen and Becker's gleeful willingness to court listener alienation. Who knew it would become a contemporary vernacular mainstay? Here is just the most current example.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Saying "Goodbye" to Walter

"And O, the heartache of the thief/strung out on the stash of his own grief..."

Greetings, D__ -

Apologies in advance, but I'm trying to wrap my head around why Walter's death is such a punch in the gut.

And I'm thinking you're the most direct route to my grief -- because the Dan, though they were certainly an element to my sonic interior, were not the inescapable harmonic presence they became until I visited you the summer of '87, when we drove to Port Elgin in your family's van, listening to the "best of" cassette your brother made.

When you turned up the volume for "My Old School," that was the first time I actually listened to what was going on and my thinking went from "Yeah, I like these guys" to "Oh man: these guys are something else entirely."
"Well you wouldn't even know a diamond if you held it in your hand/The things you think are precious I can't understand"
Surely that is the expression of a person who is sharp, observant and so far outside the swing of things it hurts, it physically hurts. He looks around his "class" (all definitions accepted), sees the entire pack enthusiastically barking in the exact opposite direction he's drawn to, and he knows: the problem isn't them, it's him. But maybe, if he gets the words right, and if he can somehow get everybody singing along, the problem won't be him. Maybe the problem will just . . . disappear.

But no.
"I did not think the girl could be so cruel/And I'm never going back to my old school"
Another part of the kicker is I think Walter's noggin was always the underrated of the two-headed beast that was the Dan. Certainly I underrated him -- up until quite recently, alas.

Look, somehow Donald possesses the bulk of the appeal. I've listened to his Nightfly Trilogy countless times -- only the canon (the Danon?) has received greater play in this house (though Kamakiriad never loses traction -- thoughts to be pursued another time, perhaps).

Donald put out three albums plus a fourth collection of seconds, of which many were arguably among his best work. Walter only put out two, and they didn't quite have the novelist's reach that Donald's did, the scope of concern was not quite so wide.

But I get ahead of myself. The truth is I was slow to listen to Walter.

"Slang of Ages" -- most-skipped song in the Danon?

Quite possibly.

And I know it's not "Walter's" -- he only sings it -- but c'mon, it's the only Dan song that put him out front. It's almost impossible for the listener not to make that song "Walter's." Regardless, nobody is going to the mat arguing it's on the same tier as "Rikki Don't Lose That Number."

And sure, back in the day I borrowed your copy of 11 Tracks of Whack. But I never put it to tape. Did I spin it a half-dozen times before returning it? Doubtful.

If the Dan's paucity of output hadn't pushed me to pursuit and deeper reflection, Walter would have remained neglected until his death -- until now. But he was still kicking when I finally shelled out for his tunes -- when I finally listened. And I was not ready for how deftly they cut through me.

Technical stuff: his voice is fine, better than okay. He has an ear for phrasing and he makes it work to his advantage -- a little like Donald, that way. But for whatever reason, the public ear prefers Donald's nasal tenor over Walter's sonorous baritone. So adjustments must be made.

11 Tracks has all the theory-execution pyrotechnics -- the bizarro bridges that outshine the chorus, the sudden key-changes. Tempo? Yeah, let's mess with that, too. It feels like a sobriety-splurge -- "Man, I've gotta quit fucking around and just get it down already!"

Contrast that with Circus Money, 14 years later. My first spin, I was trying to pin down the form, because wow it was familiar, but . . . wait: reggae? Dude, there's a reason why stoners listen to this stuff.

But it's not reggae, not really. And why should it be? Even reggae wasn't reggae, originally -- it was Soul, as embraced and expressed by Islanders. Walter's "reggae" has a polished concentration to its textures, a calculated interplay between musicians that beguiles. It's as if he said, "Let's not make this complicated, and it'll shine twice as bright -- trust me."

Listening to the music you might almost confuse him with a man who's made peace with the world. Listen to the words and you hear otherwise.

Walter's words run the gamut, from '71-'08. But they are finally a catalogue of the most heartfelt goodbyes a person can utter.

The byproduct of self-awareness at its most self-lacerating:
"Winter’s here 
And the day don’t last too long 
Barely thimbles full of sunshine to go on 
There’s an ocean full of midnight rolling right up to the door 
I guess Bob’s just not your uncle anymore"
You can't get away from that. You can disappear into a toxic fog -- temporarily. Or you can spend the rest of your life trying to learn how to say goodbye in the gentlest way possible.
Rest in peace, Walter.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Places with words and stuff

Here endeth Week One of the Truly Empty Nest. I'm having trouble finding words, so I'll suggest a few places where they reside.
  • Mourning Walter: "His death moved me in a way few musical deaths of my own generation have done." Creative partner Donald Fagen's commemorative post is touching and incisive -- as is critic Terry Teachout's, here. I hope to scratch out a commemoration of my own, but these will have to do for now.
  • Tangential to the musical fixations of Donald & Walter -- this is kinda cool: an original one-page adaptation by Leslie Cabarga of Al Dubin’s and Harry Warren’s classic Depression-era song, “With Plenty of Money & You,” recorded by Count Basie and Tony Bennet, from Lean Years, published by the Cartoonists Co-op Press, May 1974.
  • I'm a sucker for "ruin porn" -- here is a collection of GIFs contrasting the grandeur of Poconos resort promotional postcards with the abandoned ruins they've become.
  • "Even a bad movie becomes kind of good if you watch it over someone's shoulder" -- in an airplane, natch.
  • LEGO revenues are down. Speaking as one among (I am sure) a legion of disappointed dads, I have to wonder if this couldn't have been prevented had they produced enough Saturn V kits for Father's Day.
This guy is just pissing me off.
  • Ending on a musical note: Living Colour are still together, and still producing kick-ass music -- new kick-ass music, even. In a just world these guys would be bigger than . . . well, any number of wheezy acts coasting on the music they made when they were kids in the '90s.

Monday, September 04, 2017