Saturday, January 31, 2009

King Exercise III

In which I conclude my brief foray, nudged on by Stephen King, into horror:

Jane, his ex-wife, was standing in the doorway to the den, grinning over a plate of cookies in her hand.

In an instant Richard leapt to his feet, unconsciously kneading his bad arm. He tried to say something, anything, his mouth futilely trying to form words, but none came.

Jane smiled again as she set the plate down. “Thought you’d like some more of my famous chocolate chip cookies, darling.”

A nauseating mixture of baked cookies and the sweet chemical scent of Jane’s perfume choked his nostrils. Of course, he thought, remembering the odor he detected entering the foyer. Jane’s special perfume. The perfume he bought her as a wedding gift, over eight years ago.

Finally he found his voice. “Jane, the hospital. How’d you get out?”

Jane wandered over to the fireplace. A sour look came upon her as she eyed the pictures on the mantel. Pictures of him with Nell. Without Jane. With Sheryl.

“Jane,” Richard continued, more forcefully. “How did you get out of the hospital!”

“Richard, darling, they let me out.”

“No, they didn’t. They were to keep you locked up for the rest of your life. For what you did to me. For what you were trying to do to Nell.”

Jane picked up an 8 1/2-by-11 picture of Richard and Sheryl, with Nell grinning in between them. Suddenly her face became impassive, and she turned to Richard with cold dead eyes. “What did I ever do to Nell,” she said, her voice rising in both pitch and volume, “besides TRY TO SAVE HER FROM YOU AND YOUR BITCH WOMEN WHORE SLUTS!” She flung the picture at Richard, who ducked; it shattered through the backyard window, erupting in showers of glass covering the floor of the den.

Richard quickly backed away, back towards the kitchen, backpedaling with his hands outstretched. “Jane, easy, now.” He realized that if she had escaped from the hospital she probably hadn’t been taking her medication. And an unmedicated Jane was a recipe for something ugly.

Jane followed him, tears welling in her eyes. “Why did you have to do it?” she hissed. “You know I have to punish you. I can’t allow you to – ”

“Jane, slow down. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He glanced furtively to his side, towards the counter, looking for something to help him defend himself. “Let’s relax, sit down.” Then he saw them: the scissors, next to Nell’s present. “Let’s talk this over.”

“We can’t. You don’t have enough time.”

Richard stopped retreating, and began to slowly align his body so that his good arm could lunge for the scissors. That he even had to do this filled him with hatred for her. Three years ago, while he was sleeping, Jane nearly severed his right arm at the bicep with pipe cutter.

“We have plenty of time, Jane. Besides, did you know its Nell’s birthday today?”

Jane motioned to the living room. “I know, darling. That’s why I’m here. ’Nother cookie?”

Blood drained from Richard’s face. He knew with certainty: the cookies contained lethal doses of a compound called carbon tetrachloride mixed with strychnine. Jane had bought some three years ago to kill Nell and tried to kill him when he discovered the poison and pieced together her plans. Now she was finishing the job.

He knew from his research he had an hour or two window to save himself. How long had he slept since he ate those first cookies? Two hours? Was he a dead man already?

Well, even if, he could still save Nell. He had no choice.

His stomach churning, he fought a sudden urge to vomit.

Jane laughed. “What’s the matter, Richard? Did my little piggy-wiggy eat too much – ”

Richard whirled, snatched up the scissors, and fell upon Jane. She shrieked, tried to fend him off with one arm while retreating towards the foyer –

The two fell into each other, crashing atop the kitchen table, falling to the floor in a mess of intertwined limbs, plates, and mail. Richard heaved himself up, found himself looking into Jane’s eyes.

Their eyes met for a long time, then Jane’s slowly dilated. Richard looked down, and saw his hands covered in blood. He released his grip on the scissors; they stayed wedged between her ribs.

He felt dizzy and sick, probably from the poison in his blood and the impact of what he had just done. Crawling away from the body, he thought, what do I need to do? Oh, yes, call the police. Immediately.

Putting one hand in front of the other, he slide off her body and through the debris of the kitchen. He finally slid up against the refrigerator, strained to reach up to grab the telephone, dialed 9-1-1. He explained to the operator that he was poisoned, that there was a homicide, could you please send someone over right away, yes ma’am, here’s my address, thank you. He let the phone drop.

Something caught his eye: a woman’s purse. Not Sheryl’s, but Jane’s. Sweating profusely and thinking it best to stay focused, he reached out and pulled the purse towards him. Was some of the poison still in there? He feverishly reflected it might be a good idea to find out; it might save his life if the paramedics knew what they were dealing with.

He roughly foraged through the contents of the purse, finding no containers or jars of any kind. But something did catch his attention. A magenta envelope, vaguely familiar to him. He recognized its color, the font of the writing. Oh yes, Clarke’s Bakery. He’d always get Nell treats there. He carefully opened the envelope, taking great care to stay focused, all the while awaiting an ambulance. It was an invoice. For Nell’s birthday catering at the school this afternoon. Let’s see, what did they eat? What do a dozen hyperactive seven-year-olds require for a birthday party?

For your records, the invoice announced. The birthday cake, a cake designed for two dozen, to be inscribed with the words “Happy Birthday Nell” and to hold seven candles.

Richard stared in horror. He tried to scream but a hoarse rasp came out instead.

Next to the box marked Picked Up By, in flowery cursive script –

Jane Davies

King Exercise II

Continuing my plunge into horror at the urgings of Steve King:

Richard needed to change the subject of this rambling self-dialogue. Taking a cautious sip of the tea, he spied the kitchen over the rim of the cup, his eyes falling on his book, then abruptly noticed something new next to it on the counter. He slowly walked over to investigate.

A package. Brown wrapping, tied from all four sides with a red-and-white string, and a little note stuck at the top. He opened and read: Mr. Davies, Enjoy! Emmie.

Richard smiled and immediately set about the task of removing the wrapping. Mrs. MacAffey had been here, all right, and she left him a box . . . of cookies. Presumably her esteemed homemade chocolate chip specials. God, he hadn’t tasted one of those treats since Thanksgiving – since their little dispute over pay and the regularity of her housekeeping duties. Savoring those chewy morsels dissolving in his mouth, he had to admit, somewhat guiltily, that the whole labor dispute was kind of petty, on both parties, but especially his.

Collecting the box of cookies, his Caesar tome, and his cup of steaming tea with just the use of his left arm proved almost impossible, but where there’s a will, or a growling stomach and hungry mind, there’s always a way. He fell in a bundle into his favorite armchair in the living room, a cozy little spot next to a bay window facing out into the backyard. He paused a moment to soak in the view: leaves leisurely blowing across the velvet-like grass, the late-winter sun slowly sneaking down towards the horizon, winding its way between some old dogwood trees that signaled the end of his property fifty yards away.

A yawn suddenly came upon him, and Richard stretched out, yawned again. The cookies proved too tempting and he found himself wolfing down three more in quick succession, each washed down with a few sips of tea. By the time he turned to the bookmarked page he noticed that twenty minutes had somehow slipped by.

Oh well, he thought. Still have two hours or so until Nell was due home. It was too long since he’d had the time to nap. Teaching, researching, writing, Sheryl, Nell . . . all had taken their toll on his body and mind. Never one to relish the thought of wasting precious hours of his life, he nonetheless decided it would be okay to snooze for a bit. Besides, tonight of all nights there was probably a ninety-percent chance he’d be performing mediating duties worthy of a high-level ambassador – between his daughter and his girlfriend.

He slept.

He dreamed – quite vividly for a man who claimed to never dream. It was a first-person dream; that is, he found himself moving from room to room as a movie camera would pan in and out on its unseen rollers. The house in this dream seemed vaguely familiar. The outlines reminded him of some other place, but the filler – the paint, wallpaper, pictures on the wall – the filler was odd. Unusual. And everything had a sickly, yellowish tint to it.

Then a sudden realization flooded over him. This was his house. The very house he was dozing in, only not in this present time. Eight years ago. He was dreaming of his house, eight years ago when they had first bought it.

He and his ex-wife, Jane, back in the days when Jane was well – or at least acted well.

They had bought the house on the cheap. Almost stole it. The owner was a man of minor fame in the town; an ex-councilman, in fact, as well as the owner of a John Deere dealership located just on the outskirts of the city, on Route 78. Yet in the house that the Davies had bought Mr. Chambers had lived modestly. And, it turned out, had also died modestly. Being a sworn bachelor and somewhat of a tightwad with his fortune, he had never created his own family and had alienated the one he was born into. So for sixty hot summer days the house served as Mr. Chambers’ casket. After this gruesome discovery, and after nearly a year of trying to fumigate the lingering odors of Mr. Chambers from it, the house was finally placed on the market at a very appealing price. A price which very much appealed to the Davies: husband Richard, fresh and ready to start at his new position teaching Ancient History at Shale, and pregnant wife Jane, eager to start her own family and continue with her fascination with all forms of cooking.

As his disembodied spirit drifted through the house Richard realized he was coming full circle. Back into the living room, the room Chambers had, the one he died in: the striped silver wallpaper, stained green from tobacco; the lime shag carpet, resplendent in dog-shit stains and old furniture depression-marks; the plastic-coated floral-printed sofa and love-seat.

But where Richard’s chair was, and where Chambers’ brown-patched La-Z-Boy should have been if this really was reverse time-travel, stood a cage. Its form mocked that of a birdcage: round base, tapering to a point at the top, only it filled the entire corner of the room. All the warmth in his body drained as if he had walked through a misty waterfall of ice-cold fog. Suddenly every muscle in his body froze; he found he could not move further any more.

To his deep dismay, the cage slowly glided toward him, great rusted invisible hinges shrieking as it gouged a path through the carpet, leaving trails of blood on the hardwood floor behind it. Richard tried to move back, but was glued in place, despite the odd feeling of having no body.

From somewhere a spotlight shown into the cage. Richard gasped.

He gazed at himself inside the cage.

It was him, yet to his uncomprehending mind it wasn’t. The man inside the cage wore the torn and ratty black-and-white striped uniform of a concentration camp prisoner. The specter hadn’t shaved in days – or slept in that long either, judging by the tea-bag sized black circles beneath his eyes. He was Richard, and tried pitifully to smile, but only revealed a toothless cavity that drooled some dark awful ruby-red substance.

A scream snowballed inside Richard. Yet one part of his brain still remained rational, and noted offhand that he had been screaming a long while now. Like the whistle of a train rapidly accelerating upwards in pitch and volume as it neared the station.

The eyes of the man in the cage pleaded to articulate something, but the more he tried to mouth words the more liquid oozed from that terrible dripping hole.

Richard was certain he began audibly screaming now. That rational part of his brain, now starting perhaps to get a little bit concerned, suddenly informed him that he was dreaming, and could wake up any time he wanted to now. Except, scream as he might, it found he could not.

Instead an invisible vice gripped him and drew him toward the cage, toward his mirror image. Agitated, the prisoner slapped both hands against the bars repeatedly, uttering harsh, apelike sounds. Richard’s “No! No! No!” soon fell into syncopated rhythms with the man’s. Finally, less than a foot away, the cage bars disappeared and he was close enough to embrace the repellent creature.

Great big rolling tears streamed down the prisoner’s filthy face. He stopped banging and reeled his hands slowly in.

Richard stopped screaming. All the volume had seemingly shut off, like a water spigot.

The man’s hands fell flush against his chest, then crawled down over his ribs, down to his belly, finally grasping the tattered ends of his death camp tunic.

Richard stared into the man’s eyes, those blood-shot windows desperately trying to tell him something, then glanced down to the prisoner’s gory, soiled hands.

In one quick motion the man pulled up his prison tunic, up over his chest, and straight up to his chin.

The man had no stomach.

Instead, a burnt cauterized cavity, blood and mucus and bile oozing among the shredded intestines hanging like stalactites from his ribcage. And more of that nauseous ruby-red bilge seeping out and burning the floor like acid.

Richard screamed so loud he jumped from his chair, spilling cold tea on the history book and overturning the empty cookie plate.

Almost immediately, he hugged himself, sweaty, trying to stop the shaking. Counting slowly to ten helped him calm his ragged breaths, and he kept his eyes focused on the floor in front of him, kept staring at that oriental pattern rug he and Sheryl had bought. No lime green shag carpet.

At last he felt calm, and loudly exhaled. “Oh man, oh man,” he muttered.

“What’s the matter, lover? Bad dream?”

He looked up. He screamed again.

Friday, January 30, 2009

King Exercise I

For Christmas 2002 my wife bought me Stephen King’s On Writing. As I’ve written about elsewhere, I was a huge fan of his, reading just about everything he wrote up until the mid-90s before moving on. I did read Dreamcatcher during our honeymoon (mostly on the plane ride across the country) and was disappointed. But the man’s an undisputed master of his genre, of that I agree wholeheartedly and enthusiastically. So I read this book in a day or two, and was intrigued when I came across the challenge.

Somewhere near the middle of the book (I forget exactly where) he proposes a fairly typical and somewhat clichéd set up: a woman and her daughter just learn that dear old Dad has escaped from the looney bin. Now, Steve challenges the budding young storyteller, and I can almost see the glee behind those coke-bottle lenses, now … reverse the characters and make the woman the crazy one.

I took the challenge in the spring of 2003. Here’s the untitled horror story I wrote, in three postings:

Three hours of peace, Richard thought as he juggled his packages inside the foyer. Time to rest before playing referee between Nell and Sheryl tonight.

He placed the Saab keys in the stained-glass bowl under the antique tin lamp he and Sheryl recently acquired in Nantucket and fumbled the packages across the tiled floor. To his dismay Nell’s present spilled out, along with Sheryl’s note, and Richard nearly threw out his back trying to keep the porcelain monkey from smashing against the basement door. Cursing under his breath he collected his gifts and party favors neatly under his good arm, hung his wool coat, and made his way into the kitchen.

A faint, sweet chemical odor trailed him into the house, and he paused absentmindedly, tangling with a vague memory. When nothing immediately came, he sniffed deeply, but still in vain. Oh well, he mentally shrugged; Mrs. MacAfee finally got around to spring cleaning. He smiled at the dim realization that the best way to jump-start shoddy service was simply to “forget” to mail the check.

What better way to spend a chilly afternoon alone than with a little light reading and a cup of hot tea? He placed a pot of water on the burner and rubbed his hands briskly near the flame. Despite the lateness of the season, April temperatures still clustered around the freezing mark, and the old house still poured heat out of every window pane and crevice. Been that way forever, he thought, over eight years, when he and Jane were newlyweds and purchased it –

Richard jerked himself upright. What brought that into his head? He hadn’t thought of Jane since he last saw her, at the sentencing, almost three years ago. Well, that wasn’t exactly true. Every time he looked at Nell he saw Jane in those brilliant green eyes, the high cheekbones, the way her mouth twisted in mock anger. But aside from such vague recollections bubbling just under the surface, semi-conscious – well, well, he tried his best not to think of his ex-wife.

A wise policy, he now affirmed. Warmed up enough from the stove, he carefully removed the contents of his package on the oak table. Exhibit A: one porcelain monkey. For his daughter, for her birthday. A slight grin played across his face as he shook his head. Nell had a fascination with monkeys bordering on the obsessive-compulsive. Big ones, small ones, stuffed furry ones, posters of the hairy beasts, Halloween costumes – you had to face it, the kid didn’t do anything half way.

Just like her mother.

“Okay, enough, enough,” Richard found himself mumbling. He gingerly placed the monkey within the styrofoam peanuts of the box and after a brief reconnaissance to the den for Scotch tape and scissors, wrapped it, and applied a bow. Setting it aside, he then filled out her card, an appropriately colorful collage of monkeys, freshly freed from their barrel, intertwined into the number seven.

Dear Nell, my favorite little chimp, Happy Birthday! Hope you enjoy your birthday party! Love, Dad.

He debated whether or not to add Sheryl’s name after his, then finally decided to leave the envelope unsealed and the decision with Sheryl.

The pot on the stove whistled, and Richard made poured a cup of tea. Sitting in the wicker chair at the glass table, legs crossed comfortably, he sipped the hot beverage and reread Sheryl’s note. Richard – Sorry about not getting the afternoon off! See you both soon tonight – I have a little special present for Nell I think she’d adore. I’ll call you at seven. Love, Sheryl.

He glanced at the clock above the sink. Quarter past three. That gave him two-and-a-half hours before Nell was due home from her catered school party. Two hours plus to read his latest interest, an epic bio of Julius Caesar. That would so come in handy this semester. Maybe even help jump-start his stilted magnus opus, a twelve hundred page first-draft overview of Europe at the advent of the first millennium, sitting in a drawer now for – what? – almost seven months now.

The writing had been so therapeutic three years ago, after Jane and those unpleasant events. It had been a way to console himself, a way to wrap himself up in an alien world where he felt more at home in. He had given blood and tears to help Nell adjust through the hell of it, and at night, after putting the child to bed, he had looked forward to spending the evenings with some kings and queens, knights, popes and antipopes.

But then things quickly changed: life happened. He had met Sheryl, an office manager-slash-friend of his sister-in-law, at a family Fourth of July bash, and actually asked her out. Richard soon discovered to his absolute delight the she was an avid history buff, a liberal arts graduate, a lover of wine, a fan of impressionism – both in painting as well as music – and, like himself, a recent divorcee. By September and the start of a new semester he had realized he was in love, and dutifully relegated his opus to his desk’s bottom drawer.

He told her of his love for her, and she echoed his feelings.

Life would have been perfect save one small, minor problem: Nell. The problem seemed paradoxical to Richard; the two women in his life initially got along tremendously, but little by little Nell grew distant, sometimes angry and often downright rude, whenever he’d mention Sheryl. No approach helped the situation. He tried to whole gamut of parenting techniques: rational discussion failed, as did outright bribes. And though he never outright spoke of Nell’s behavior to Sheryl, he sensed that his girlfriend knew on some level, and had tried on numerous occasions to befriend his daughter.

Nell responded like an adult who realized her affections were being purchased: coolly at first, then ice cold, and finally, the stone-cold-dead silent treatment.

Then, last night, tucking his six-year old into bed after improvising a version of the tale of Gawain and the Green Knight, the question was posed to Richard.

“Is Sheryl going to be my new mommy?”

Richard had paused a long time. He had mentally rehearsed for this moment, but now that it was before him, his throat suddenly lost all moisture. It took an unusually strong effort at willpower for him, he who was used to lecturing in front of halls filled with several hundred students four periods a day, to produce an audible voice to speak to the little girl.

“Your daddy loves Sheryl, and Sheryl loves your daddy, honey. We may get married, but” – and this next part had been particularly acidic to him, though he’d fought to keep a poker face – “but your mommy will always be your mommy. Sheryl will just – ”

“When’s mommy coming home, daddy?” Her radiant green eyes, shining like sapphires from the light from the hall, pierced his, cut into him and into his heart.

“Nell, we’ve talked about this before, honey. Your mommy is sick. She’s in a hospital to get well. There are doctors treating her, and someday she’ll come back.” Yeah, he had thought, hopefully when hell froze over and he was long in his grave after about, oh, another forty or fifty years of enjoying life without the sick fear of losing it prematurely –

Or of losing the use of one’s arm.


Just about a third done with Shogun by James Clavell, and I hate to admit it, I am hooked. Hooked bad. I’m averaging about 22 or 23 pages a day, as compared to the 8 or 11 or so I was averaging with Cryptonomicon, a book of similar length (actually, about it’s around a hundred pages shorter). Shogun’s a simpler book than that one, but that in no way implies that its less worthy of the investment in time. Simple in this case means visceral, guttural, emotional. The reader’s held captive in an emotional vice as opposed to free reign in some museum of intellectual delights. It’s quite dreadful, in an enticing, perversely addicting sort of way.

Does any of that make sense?

My previous and only association of Shogun was some vague images of those 70s historical fiction books that were on all my relatives’ bookshelves. That, and a ridiculous Richard Chamberlain in a kimono. That’s all. I haven’t seen the miniseries nor read anything about the book. So, on a whim, after spotting it about a year ago in a used book store, I bought it. Started it three weeks ago, and now can’t put it down.

Full review will follow in a month or six weeks, but suffice it to say, Shogun grips you from the very first couple of pages. A 17th century sailor shipwrecked upon feudal Japan, and an immediate and forceful clash of cultures ensues. It’s violent, gritty, and almost hopeless, except for the fact that you know this guy is gonna make it through, because, like, there’s another thousand pages to go in the book. But his crew … Some of the ordeals and the torture they must go through approaches the unreadable. There but for the Grace of God, as is said.

Perhaps “simple” is not the best adjective to describe the book. Yes, Cryptonomicon addresses something like two dozen esoteric subjects jumbled about within its plot and character and thematic stew, from Japanese World War II culture to mathematics and cutting-edge financial cryptography. Shogun, in its own way, is complex, too, detailing the Machiavellian intricacies of the numerous political power struggles which our hero, the sailor Blackthorne, finds himself an unwitting pawn, while he himself struggles to hatch a plan to escape. After, of course, desperately figuring out how to survive in this crazy culture where politeness is held in greater esteem than life itself and death can come unexpected at any second with a flash of a blade.

I’m hooked.

Thursday, January 29, 2009


All the things I deal with, voluntarily and involuntarily, on a daily basis, seem to fall into three categories. The first and finest are the things that interest me intensely. Writing, reading about my various oddities and niche interests such as physics and mathematics, nutrition, religion, etc, fall into this category. Second are things that I’d like to know more about, but don’t have the time or energy to devote to them. And last are those things that I have no interest in but must attend to, day in and day out, to survive.

Economics falls into the second category.

I’d love to learn more about it but it’s just too daunting at this stage in my life. Still, it fascinates me, if only to have the knowledge to know when someone I’m listening to is B.S.-ing me or not. Economics is such an elastic subject that anyone can take a statistic and bend it this way or that or whatever way necessary to support his thesis. I would love that intuitive ability, gleaned from a thorough in-depth study, to know whether he’s overstepping his bounds, so to speak, with his statistics.

So, I listen here and there, read this and that, and pick up little by little. I enjoy listening to Larry Kudlow on Saturday mornings when I run errands with the Little One. He’s unabashedly conservative and unfailingly optimistic. Still, I’m no expert, I’m even far from being able to intelligently argue in the field. But I can understand an economic argument, and I’ve recently heard one that makes quite a lot of sense to me.

Pertaining to our country’s economic woes (which, remember, are always exaggerated by the mainstream media), here’s a simple solution that will never, ever be implemented. But from what I heard I think, in theory, it can work.

Suspend the federal income tax until the end of the year.

Just the federal income tax. Keep all the local, state, and sin taxes in place.

Whoa. I got curious as to how much this would amount compared to the $850 billion “stimulus” or “generational theft” bill that’s currently being debated.

How about some numbers? For the sake of argument, consider my family as middle class. Right in the middle. Two incomes are required, but that’s because we live in an expensive part of the country. If we don’t have to pay federal income tax we will have approximately $10,000 in our pockets by the end of the year. About half of our day care expense. Regardless, with that much extra in our pockets, at our current spending / saving ratio, that’s a fair chunk of change going into our local economy.

Some simple numeric extrapolation? Assume 300 million people in the United States, so, maybe, 100 million taxpaying units (couples, families, etc). Since we’ve located my family in the exact middle, let’s assume every unit will average $10,000 savings under this plan. Do the math, and you see that this plan, this suspension of federal income tax for the remaining 11 months of the year 2009 will yield a trillion dollars.

Whoa, again.

Essentially, they really don’t even have to expand this suspension to December 31, 2009. A six- or nine-month suspension should stimulate the economy quite nicely, thank you.

But it will never happen. Why? Simple. This plan would force our coronated overlords to tighten their belts and readjust their spending habits to suit the harsher economic climate. Washington needs the money to finance power and to push through the conflicting agenda of a couple hundred individuals grouped into two broad camps, a stupid one and an evil one. And 99.99999 or so percent of us are condemned to live under their stupid and evil rule.

Sigh. I’m just trying to stay employed and keep all the bills paid at the end of every month, not expecting a bailout but hoping and praying for some simple economic relief.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


I love big, weird words. The titular word I just now learned reading this short post about an offbeat remembrance of which John Updike plays a part.

As Buckley does in Nordlinger’s post, I often jot down unfamiliar and curiously attractive words I stumble across reading a book, but, unfortunately, I fail to herd them into a commonsense place for easy review, like, say, I don’t know – a notebook. Usually these slips of papers, half-torn envelopes, business card backs, napkins, or anything else that can serve as a big-word-repository (there must be a big word for that) get thrown out inadvertently, and I am left less a man.

Oh well.

In honor of sesquipedalian John Updike, not a single book or story of whose work I’ve read, I pledge to create and maintain my big-word-repository from now on.

Godspeed, as they say …

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
Maker of Heaven and Earth
And His Son, Our Lord, Jesus Christ,
Conceived by the Holy Spirit,
Born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
He was crucified, died, and was buried.
On the third day, He rose from the dead
And sits at the right hand of the Father,
From which He shall come to judge living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
The Holy Catholic Church,
The communion of saints,
The forgiveness of sins,
The resurrection of the body,
And life everlasting. Amen.

(from memory, forgive any misplaced words)

Was reading about this creed, last night, while thumbing through a short book I purchased a long time ago on the catechism. Something struck me this time. I mean, really made me pause and think, as if seeing those well-worn words for the very first time. I still don’t know why, but I’ve been thinking a bit about them last night (this was about ten minutes before Lights Out), and this morning, during various toddler wrangling and the Rushings to the Places of Work.

Thought experiment: what if … what if you really, truly, really believed this creed? Yeah, I know you do, me too. What I mean is, what if you lived like you really truly believed it? Reordered and reorganized your life to show belief. All your acts showed to the folks on the outside, the disbelievers and the lip-servicers? Actions louder than words type of stuff. What if? What would life be like?

Would the tenth line scare you, or comfort you? How ’bout the last two lines? How about the whole philosophy, living and practical to abstract and theological, that proceeds from it, logically, rationally, unstoppably – how would you live within that framework, that lattice of infinite interrelationships? Would you be terrified, or consoled?

Hmmm. To take the plunge. I inch up to the water’s edge, dip a toe in, gauge the temperature and scan the water line for dangers, hesitating, and then –

Monday, January 26, 2009

Teething and Constipation

No, not me. The Littlest Addition. It was not a fun weekend, and not much got done. She’s not quite five months old, yet, so we’re not a hundred-percent sure she’s teething (although there’s a little bump where her top front teeth will be), but she sure as heck didn’t poop the whole weekend. Also Friday. So, we’re talking, as of this morning, about three-and-a-half days of backlog. Poor thing.

Soooo, lots of crying and howling and genuine misery. A late-night run in the bitter cold yesterday to two stores to find a tube of orajel and some teething biscuits.

Due to a laundry-list of errands and a coupla hours implementing the massive task of organizing and cleaning up the basement office, no writing was done. No reading was done, either. My father-in-law came over Saturday night, partly to visit the little ones, partly to celebrate his birthday, so there was a little oasis of fun. I also stole a little nap on Sunday afternoon, a small attempt to make a dent in the trillion-hour sleep deficit that’s surrounded and engulfed me.

Did borrow an interesting little book of a couple of greatest-this and greatest-that essays by historian of civilization and philosopher Will Durant. Subject of a blog post later in the week.

Not much else to report. I just found two early short stories (c. 1999) that are basically unpublishable that I may radically rewrite and post in a three-day cycle to make up for the Lost Weekend. Tonight, if I can steal an hour from my family, I’ll get to work on it.

LE out.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Favorite Quotes # 272

“I’ve always loved the flirtatious tango of consonants and vowels, the sturdy dependability of nouns and capricious whimsy of verbs, the strutting pageantry of the adjective and the flitting evanescence of the adverb, all kept safe and orderly by those reliable little policemen, punctuation marks. Wow! Think I got my ass kicked in high school?”

- Dennis Miller, The Rant Zone

Another in a lengthy and growing collection of odd little dollops of weirdness that appeal (usually only) to me, and I wish desperately that I had written or said. I know exactly what he’s feeling here.

For some, Mr. Miller’s an acquired taste, a love-him-or-hate-him type of comedian. I don’t know why, exactly. I find him hilarious, and always have, from those breakout Weekend Update SNL segments in the mid-to-late-80s to his current radio show, which I listen to whenever I’m in the car at lunch. I even converted my wife; she now calls me at the office every now and then, amusing and sometimes even giggling, starting off the call with “Guess what Dennis Miller said today …”

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Random Questions

Some random, unanswered questions that’ve been floating around in the LEsphere

- Gas is now around $1.50 a gallon. Back in August it hovered around $4.00 a gallon, and we were inundated with story after story of that gasapocalypse. Where’re the stories now, now that it’s like at about a third of what it was six months ago?

- And can anyone explain in, say, a paragraph, the economic engine that determines what we pay at the pump?

- Been thinking a lot about the Rand novel Atlas Shrugged. And I think it’s very, very relevant at this stage of the game. I read it, yes, a decade ago, and was impressed, but I grew beyond it. But now I wonder … where is the Catholic Atlas Shrugged in our times?

- Why were we (those in the media, rather) wringing our collective hands back in January 2005 over a $40 million inaugural celebration during a time of “war” and “the uncertainties after the Indian tsunami” and there’s nary a reflection upon the $150 million Obama inauguration while we’re in such dire straits economically and existentially as a nation?

- What can be done about this “indentured servitude” that – I estimate, and I dare you to contradict – that at least 75% of our population is forced to endure? Specifically, me, but generally, your sons and daughters, your friends and neighbors, and, most probably, unless you are a freelancer, own your own business, retired, or work for the government, yourself? Sometimes I think the ol’ invisible hand of the marketplace is squeezing me mercilessly in its fist.

Just askin’ …

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Lion vs. Bear

My wife and I were channel surfing the other night and settled on that scrolling program guide that all cable systems have, so we sat there and watched the tv listings roll by. One thing caught our eye, and though we didn’t watch it, we had some fun with it.

The show was called:

Lion Feeding Frenzy

on the Animal Planet channel. That got a laugh, especially as it was followed an hour later by:

Bear Feeding Frenzy

Hmmmm. I ventured a guess that the show after that would be:

Lion vs. Bear


Bear vs. Lion

Then, I said, the next show in the series would be:

Lion and Bear vs. Unarmed Man

Wow. Just think about it – the possibilities are almost endless. In a couple of minutes we had each other cackling, cracking up, thinking about episodes for this new series. For example, how ’bout:

Lion and Bear: It’s Hunting Season

Lion and Bear vs. Hamas

Lion and Bear Rid the World of Nuclear Weapons

Lion and Bear: This Time It’s Personal

Lion and Bear: Barely Legal

Lion and Bear Go To White Castle

That’s all I can recall, but we came up with at least twice as many more. Doesn’t take much, does it, when you’re sleep deprived and got a bad case of the giggles, eh?

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Subtle Hint: Denouement

The next step. Hmmm. What would be the next step? If we truly wanted to take it to the next level, what would we have to do?

The answer seemed obvious, at least to me and Rich. Replace the weakest link.

Ah, pride, foolish pride. Hubris. Inflated ego. Scourge of the artist who feels certain he needs to compromise to bring his work to the masses. But perhaps I am being too hard on myself, on ourselves. Steve was our weakest link, no question about that. In hindsight, though, the way we handled it ultimately led to the band’s demise.

You can be an uncompromising artist and be a bastard. You can be a nice guy and have fun doing those things that you have fun doing. But you can’t be both. And we tried to be both, to walk that dotted yellow line down the median lane, to further careers as artists and try not to be loathed by anyone.

It turned out our careers vanished and we were loathed by quite a few people.

Rob the Rush fan, the dude who drummed for me off and on all those years but was not part of Subtle Hint, had a motto: “Business is business.” Whenever he was kicked out of a band, he smiled, said that there was no hard feelings, call me when you need a drummer. Business is business.

The case against Steve went something like this - Exhibit A: a weak voice with little range, coupled with absolutely no efforts made to improve it through exercises or coaching. Exhibit B: a willful disregard of said weak voice through active abuse and, shall we say, the enthusiastic abandon to harmful habits. Exhibit C: failure to show up to band practices, scattered here and there, at first, and then much more frequent as summer gave way to fall. Exhibit D: a marked failure to write new material, and especially to branch out at the band’s request from lyrics focusing on getting kicked in the face by backstabbing lonely girls.

To be fair, Steve had some good points. He was a crazy front man. He loved being in front of a crowd. But we figured any lead singer we approached would have those qualities. Steve also had the fortune to live on the property where we built our rehearsal studio the year before. This problem could be circumvented by simply explaining the situation to his mother, and then dangle those regular rent checks to her.

We gave Steve warning. A couple of times, in fact, and we made him aware of all those problems we felt were getting out of hand and holding us back. I don’t know; I don’t know people, but I do know that instead of enlightening Steve and making him say, “Gee, fellas, you’re right, help me to change!” he got more moody and withdrew from the band, disappearing more frequently.

The third week of September Steve failed to show for a gig. We canceled, and then booted him out of the band.

We thought we could land on our feet, probably in a month or so of downtime and rehearsals. You see, we had a replacement in mind, a friend of Mike’s and an acquaintance of my girlfriend at the time. He had everything: the image, the desire, the charisma. Only problem was, we learned kinda late, was that he couldn’t sing. Or got stage fright, or shy in front of the rest of the band. He crashed and burned, as they say, and October came to a close. We cursed ourselves for not auditioning him while Steve was in the band, but we fashioned ourselves nice guys and decided we would not do such a thing.

Panic mode kicked in. Ads in the local music trade papers. Asking friends of friends of friends if they were interested. Visiting and chatting area music shop clerks. We did get response. In fact, by the end of the year I think we auditioned close to twenty dudes for lead singer. Usually Rich screened them with a phone call, and if they passed that muster we’d meet him, sometimes at a club, sometimes at a parking lot, play him our songs, chat music philosophy. Then, he’d come in to the rehearsal studio and, more often than not, the audition was terrible. Absolutely terrible.

A couple of guys we liked but didn’t like us. A few actually made it to two or three auditions, but just didn’t fit in, and either we or they just stopped calling. It got very wearying, and very depressing. That loss of momentum was devastating. It crept into our souls like hypothermia, sapping our drive, killing our desire. Rehearsals became a chore. Auditions became a necessary evil. And eventually, just in to the new year, John quit the band.

Rich, Mike and I continued the search over the next couple of months. Prospective singers grew scarcer and rarer as the weeks flew by. Mike got itchy; he always had side projects and people begging him to play bass for them; we told him it was okay if he wanted to pursue side work, just as long as he was there for us if we needed him. Soon Mike was playing in a full band playing out (ironically, the singer of the new band was that Dylan-esque balladeer we played with on “Town Day” two years prior).

And then there were two little Indians: Me and Rich. This time we looked to join an established band, but still, the jinx, the curse continued. To tell the truth, my heart kinda went out of it around this time. I went back to school, full time, for physics, pursuing another childhood dream, and jamming with Rich became like a hobby, like watching football games with your buddy. We still wrote songs, still bought new equipment, even jammed out at rehearsal studios with Mike and a drummer pal every now and then. Then, a drunken argument, and me and Rich were splitsville.

One day a few months later, out of the blue, Rob the Rush fan called me. He was drumming in a band, a full band, doing contemporary covers (STP, Alice In Chains, Pearl Jam, etc), and they were ready to start gigging. They just wanted a second guitar to fatten out the sound, someone who had live experience – would I be interested? Sure, I said, not sure why. So I played with them for a couple of weeks. I never clicked with them, though, never bonded. After a while, they stopped calling me to rehearse. Hey, business is business, right?

So, that’s the saga of Subtle Hint, and it’s also the tale of my life in music. It spanned a little over ten years, from those first shaky barre chords to that final grunge cover band. There were too many good times to write about, too many crazy things I’m embarrassed to tell you about but would never trade away those experiences for anything.

I have a new set of friends now, and have not seen any of the old guys in over a decade. My wife met only one Subtle Hint member, Mike, once, and that was when we went to see him play in a bar during one of our early first dates. Mike sat and chatted with us briefly for a few minutes between sets, and all these memories I’ve been writing about flowed back into me, as they do almost every single day, aching, unresolved, a strange mixture of ambivalence and sadness and an overpowering desire to joyfully shout it out from the rooftops.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Subtle Hint: The Shows

The “Hello Cleveland” tour began in May of 1991. Those of you familiar with the movie This Is Spinal Tap will get the reference. We had a full band, a fifteen song set, a rehearsal studio, demo tapes, and a lot of ambition. We would play anywhere, anytime, free. And we did. We had a lot of success, though not exactly the type of success we were expecting.

As I wrote earlier, I got my first experience playing live with Free Reign. The first show was an indoor talent contest, where we were limited to one song. So I was onstage for about five minutes. It was truly strange. The odd thing that stuck with me was that when you’re onstage, you’re absolutely blind. You can’t see anyone or anything two feet past the stage, in the darkness of the room. It was a bit disorienting. Oh – and the stage is beastly hot, something like at least ninety-nine degrees. And time goes by fast.

Three months later Free Reign played an outdoor music festival, organized by Per, who was not only our singer/main songwriter/guitarist but also a member of the college student council and the sponsor of the outdoor music festival. There were two other bands playing, but we got the choice spot – headlining. We played five songs in our thirty minute set (lots of gabbing by Per to the audience between songs and extended guitar solos by the band). Again, it went by fast. But what a feeling!

Then a two-year dry spell, until I hooked up with Steve and Rich again, this time with Mike a full-fledged member of the band. I don’t recall who was drumming for us (probably Rob the Rush fan), but that summer we did a little show called “Town Day” (the town still insists on anonymity, I’m afraid). It was at a park, outdoors, a beautiful day, and there was this ten-by-twenty foot block of cement about three feet off the ground that the band set up and played on. We had a half-hour set and ran through about ten of the older tunes in front of a crowd of about twenty or thirty people. We recorded it, too, and it came out satisfactory. We also had the distinction of being the only band that day (there was only one other act, a solo Dylan-esque balladeer) to have a train roll by behind us for five minutes, leisurely and laughingly drowning out our sound. Oh well.

That winter two things happened. One, we got John on drums, completing our lineup. And two, Steve, Bob and I rented a massive house a few towns over. Tumblers suddenly clicked into position, and three months later, we booked our first show of the tour, which would last for about twenty shows over the course of five months before crashing completely to a halt.

The m.o. was simple. We enticed people to show up to see us play with an invitation to a party at the house we rented, free. We bought the beer, they showed up. And the amazing thing was – it worked, more often than not. After a while some people just showed up to the parties and not the shows, but we had some friendly pinky-ring-twisting talks with them. The only problem was that by the end of the summer the parties were getting scary. I’m talking about fifty or sixty people stumbling through your house, drunk or worse, and you not knowing half of them. But most of the time a good time was had by all. In other words, there were no casualties, legal or otherwise.

The majority of the shows were at two dives in Newark and Jersey City. Basically just places for bands to play and their friends to watch. In other words, no drinking. We soon learned that no drinking meant no crowds. Hmmm. There is (or was) a semi-famous chain of clubs dotting the Jersey shore we also played a lot at, and these had liquor licenses. Thusly, they were packed with more people, say, at a ratio of ten- or twenty-to-one compared to the other clubs. So we tried to focus on them. We also played a couple of random bars here and there, a battle-of-the-bands type thingie one rainy night, another outdoor gig if I remember correctly, and, later that fall, two clubs down in Greenwich Village, NYC and one somewhere else in lower Manhattan, don’t recall where. Our biggest show was as an “opener” for the band Law And Order, a band you don’t remember now but was actually moderately successful in the very-early-90s.

What was a typical show like? Steve usually booked the gigs; he was on good terms with the various promoters and club booking agents we came in contact with. Sometimes Rich or Mike did, too. Usually for a Friday or Saturday, but we occasionally played odd Thursday, Sunday, or mid-week gigs. Not often, though, ’cause of the whole party aspect of it. We tried to get at least one quality rehearsal the day before every show, depending on how “important” it was, but we were still rehearsing regularly at Steve’s garage, at least two or three times a week.

We’d all meet at the garage a few hours before the show and load up all our equipment. John and I both had trucks, so we could carry most of the amps and drum kit. Rich and Steve would carry the instruments in their cars; Mike would hitch a ride with someone. We’d get to the place, set up our equipment, and then, usually, grab some dinner. There was an awesome Chinese place in Jersey City we frequented a lot. Then, we’d come up with a finalized set list. A beer or two for those who could handle it (i.e. still play competently), meet and greet with friends new and old, then sit through any bands on before us. Smoke your last cigarette, then – on to the stage! John would announce “Hello, Cleveland,” tap his sticks, and we’d launch into the first tune.

Nothing too strange or weird happened on stage to me. Once I broke the low E-string just before the last song of a set – “Kicked in the Face,” whose main riff prominently bounced up and down on said string, so I had to fake it (this was in the early days before you brought a back-up guitar with you). Steve, always a little manic on stage, leaped from a speaker cabinet off to the side of the stage and his knee crashed against a monitor, tearing ligaments somehow. The next show he sang on a stool, his leg immobilized in a brace. Mike and I always seemed to bond onstage, communicating and moving around; I enjoyed playing with him. Rich was kinda monolithic, immobile, a hairy madmen cranking out beautiful or frantic guitar solos, but that was his image.

One thing imprinted itself indestructibly on my mind during those couple of months, one thing only, really. And that is … the sound of clapping, anywhere from a dozen to five hundred people clapping for you, for something you did, for some feeling of appreciation or excitement or entertainment that you instilled in them … that sound is something I will never forget, as the lights go down on stage and you’re standing in darkness and the crowd is clapping for you.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Subtle Hint: Demo Tapes

So I’m in the isolation booth, all by my lonesome, an acoustic guitar in hand and headphones snug on my ears. I hear a tinny voice in my head, the engineer, sounding like he’s a thousand miles away, asking me if it’s a go. Hey, at $50 an hour, who am I to delay things? I nod, ’cause I’m not miked up, but the acoustic is, and our song starts playing in my head.

I’m not new to this. It’s actually our fourth time in five years at a recording studio. Each time the quality gets better – the quality of songs written, the quality of songs performed, and the quality of the recordings themselves. Each time we move up to better and, because they’re better, more expensive, studios. At the above-mentioned rate, it’ll take about twelve hours to record and mix a four-song demo tape, spread in three or four hour chunks over a period of a week-and-a-half.

The song starts playing, and I start strumming along with it. I hear myself and Rich on distorted rhythm, me playing my trusty Les Paul, and Rich playing his Warlock. It’s a wall of crunchy mud, syncopated, with Mike’s pounding bass anchoring it and John’s crisp drumming prompting it along at an aggressive pace. The idea is that on this track I’ll be doubling the rhythm on the acoustic, buried somewhat but still discernible to the skilled ear, to fatten and fill out our wall of sound.

Five years earlier, only a few months into my career in the band, known obliquely as the Outpatients, Steve, Rich, and I booked a block of four hours at some dude’s basement recording studio just to get a few songs on tape, good enough quality to pass out to prospective band members. And also to get some experience under our belts.

It was somewhat stressful. Rich quit the band earlier in the day, only to show up at Steve’s house that night as we left for the studio. We wanted to do four songs ("Will and Won’t Care," "Backstabber," "Lonely," and "Kicked in the Face"). There’d be no bass; we had no bass player at this point. Steve would play drums, and, later, overdub vocals. Rich would overdub leads. Those four hours were long and stressful, but we made it through, and got a fantastic demo tape for what you could expect given our self-imposed limitations. We must’ve played it two dozen times into the early morning hours. We gathered at my family’s house, empty for the weekend, and made pasta for everyone at three in the morning.

Oh no – as the track’s being played to me and I’m picking along on the acoustic, my ears catch something wrong. Something doesn’t sound right. No one else has picked up on it, but I hear it, yeah, it’s obvious to me, and I think it’s a mistake I made on my previously recorded track. I stop playing; the track stops; the engineer asks me what’s wrong. I own up to it. I ask them to play the track again, and listen at the appropriate part. Now they all hear it. I think I accidentally play a C chord while the band’s playing a G, just for a split-second until I realize my mistake and adjust. But it’s there. And now we need to re-record that electric track of mine, so I have to break out the Les Paul and patch in the correct chord. A half-hour later, it’s fixed, and a half-hour after that, the acoustic track is laid down.

Two or three years after that first recording experience, Mike and Rich befriend some young dudes from a town a couple towns over. They’ve constructed a recording studio in a garage, and are going to school to master the process. They’ll work with us at a discounted rate for the experience. Excellent. We wind up engaging their services twice: the first time we record our whole set, a dozen songs, nothing fancy, no overdubs, etc, just to get our "live" experience on tape. Then, a couple of months later, we do another demo tape, three songs this time. Sitting with Mike in the playback booth, I am amazed at how heavy a band we are. Mike smiles, winks, and high-fives me.

My acoustic track down, we proceed to spend the rest of the evening recording Rich’s solos. Mike and I head outside for a smoke, then come back in. There’s a little kitchenette off to one side, and we drink some Coke. Hanging on the wall is this lever thingie called a "Can Crusher" – you put the empty aluminum can in it, pull down, and its crushed into a hockey-puck sized chunk of metal. Mike’s fascinated with it, and mentions it at least a dozen times every night we’re there.

We’re in the middle of our "Hello Cleveland" tour. It’s a hot July, and after work all this week we’ve been driving to this studio to get this demo tape done. This is the one we’re going to be sending out to agents, promoters, record companies, you name it. So it has to be good, and we have to spend the money to make it so. We’ve settled on "Cold Hell," "White Lightning" (revamped), "Driving Me Crazy" and "Money."

Here’s how you spend your time at a recording studio: you play your part, then it’s waiting, listening, waiting, listening, waiting, listening; repeat a dozen more times. We start our sessions around 10 pm the first night, and by midnight we’ve laid down all the basic tracks for the four songs (usually you rehearse the song once, then record two takes and settle on the best). The next couple of nights are spent laying down vocals, backing vocals, and guitar solos, and adding effects (we had a reverse cymbal crash start one song – really, really neat). Mistakes are corrected as they’re discovered. If you’re lucky, your engineer will seem to dig your work; ours did. You hear your songs, your beloved songs, played and replayed at least twenty or twenty-five times each.

It gets repetitive, yes, you need to take breaks, yes, but when you’re holding that finished product in your hand, well, nothing’s better than that feeling of pride over creative work well done.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Subtle Hint: The Rehearsal Studio

One thing we learned early on as a band: parents may say they don't mind you playing in the basement, but once you throw in amps, vocal mikes, and a set of drums, they do. So do the neighbors. By around 1990 or so, we'd had it with our share of cops being called on us at Steve's house, our de facto place of rehearsal. We seriously needed alternative rehearsing space if we were to grow cohesively as a unit.

There were other options. Rehearsal studios. They're there; look 'em up in the phone book. Usually old warehouses laying out near railroad tracks, industrialized areas, away from folks peering out behind curtains with fingers on the 9 and 1 buttons on their phones. Reinforced with heavy duty sound-proofing, decked out with decent to surprisingly-good amplification and PA systems, manned by (usually) old hippies and failed musicians. There were two within a half-hour's drive that we frequented, but we'd drive farther to check out newer ones. The problem was, well, the expense. At about $20 an hour, you called to book a block of time, normally about two hours. We all showed up, brought our instruments and amps, if desired, in, set-up, ran through all our songs once or twice in about two hours, then paid the dudes. Came to about $8 a head, but we didn't like the fact that once you got there you had to be all business. The clock was ticking. We needed a place where we could relax, write, be creative, experiment with different arrangements, and still be able to focus on tight rehearsals right before a live show.

Me and Rich hit on it: a rehearsal studio of our own. It couldn't be a basement, due to soundproofing issues (we tried in the two-family my mother rented). It just wouldn't work. So it needed to be a garage. And then we realized: Steve's house.

Steve's house was, well, a disaster. Poverty-level living for his mother, his older sister and his two younger brothers. Their father left them years before, and the house just went to hell. Ghetto, out of place even in the low-middle class town where I lived. But he had an intact garage, albeit unused except as a storage facility for crap. We could clean it out, fumigate it, insulate the walls, run electricity to it, and voila! We'd have our studio. To entice Steve's mom, we dangled the promise of monthly rent to her. I think around $100 a month, or twenty bucks from each of us.

The economics worked in our favor. We estimated $500 to insulate it and power it, and it would take a month or so to get it ready. At the rate of visiting rehearsal studios two or three times a week two hours a pop, we were spending about $350 a month with those fees. We'd break even after two months. Steve agreed, spoke with his mom, she agreed. Everyone decided to contribute equally to the costs, and we broke ground, so to speak.

Only problem was, well, overconfidence. It took twice as long to insulate that damn garage (and twice as long to clean it out completely), at a cost double what we estimated. And this was in the middle of winter, too, so it was cold. Bone-chilling, finger- and toe-numbing cold. Couldn't use heaters, 'cause that'd blow fuses. And we still needed an electrician to come out and wire the place up so we wouldn't set it up in a fiery blaze.

Finally, though, it was done. We hauled our equipment in, drums, amps, a couch, a rug, a PA system, and rehearsed. Our hearts fell. There was little sound actually being proofed. If you stepped outside, it was a barely muffled roar. It was like we were rehearsing in a big tent. Depressed, we shook our heads, considered our alternatives, but wouldn't give up. Too much invested not to finish.

Rich came up with the inevitable idea: we had to build a room-within-a-room. The only plausible way to considerably cut down on escaping sound/noise. So, now, further expense: lumber, sheet rock, a door, and a ceiling. Plus, none of us were really carpenters or builders. Eventually, we got it done, oh, by around mid-Spring or so. An out-of-work construction-worker friend and about $2,000 more in supplies. But it got done. I remember the night it was completed: we threw a party! Rich (who was basically a teetotaler) left early, as did Steve, who was, as always, romancing some chick, so me and Mike and his buddy spent the night drinking and smoking - no, we didn't burn it down - and listening to hours of music in our new rehearsal facility, finally passing out in the pre-dawn hours. An excellent way, I think, to christen a rehearsal studio.

Rich and I paid most of the bills up front, the other guys being too poor. As a bookkeeper, it was my job to keep tally of everyone's back payments, and that caused a little bit of friction. I also cut Steve's mom the monthly rent check, and the guys reimbursed me. But aside from that, the studio paid off incredibly.

First off, we could rehearse anytime for as long as we wanted. And we didn't all have to be there to be productive. Many times I went there myself just to play really, really loud and record 45 minutes of random stream-of-consciousness jamming. Or I'd be there with Mike and John, and we'd jam on Rush covers all night. Guys would pair or triple up and work on new material together. It was a centralized location for all our equipment, centrally located from where each of our apartments. Padlocked on both the outer garage door and the interior door, we considered it safe. We hung all sorts of stupid sh*t all over the walls, including band flyers and such, so it was inspirational in a twisted sort of way.

Due to circumstances I'll get into later, Subtle Hint had it and used it for just under two years, and probably paid Steve's mom a grand in rent (you'll find out why later). Materials came to around $3400 if I remember correctly, so the rehearsal studio cost us close to $4400, or $880 a man. That's 220 outside studio hours, what we were doing about every nine months or so, but not counting all those above-mentioned benefits.

Well worth it. Well worth it.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Subtle Hint: The Songs

I loved writing songs. Still do, though now it’s when I pick up my only guitar, a six-string acoustic, and fiddle around. But during the heyday of Subtle Hint and its prior incarnations, I really, really loved writing songs.

They came to me, usually, while practicing, more often than not when jamming to some random radio tune. A cool riff. Something weird, funky, different. Something that stands out to your ear. Then, you marry it to another cool riff, also weird, funky, different, though complementary. It either clicks, or it doesn’t. Then, I’d play it for Steve. Gotta give him credit, he always had a notebook of lyrics handy. I’d play my riffs, he’d sing, things would fit or they wouldn’t, or we’d make them fit. Sometimes he would hum something that I’d translate on the guitar, sometimes I’d tell him what type of melody or lyrics I envisioned over a line of music. And they just fell into place.

During that summer we played all those shows, we had about fifteen songs and a couple of cover tunes on deck. More than enough to do a set list, since most of our sets were kept to a half-hour by the promoter. We’d usually play ten or twelve songs a gig, depending on how hyper we were (we had a tendency to play aggressive, and aggressive playing tends to be fast). The covers I remember playing were AC/DC’s “Whole Lotta Rosie” and Beastie Boys’ “Fight For Your Right to Party” but there were a couple more. I think we played other stuff, plus Loose Jams (variously numbered on our rehearsal recordings), but those two covers are the only ones I recall playing live.

Here’s a list of most of the original Subtle Hint canon, in approximate chronological order:

Backstabber. Simplistic bluesy cliché, one of our first efforts. Four beats of an F# riff to four beats of an E riff, all four times for the verse, then some descending chords for the chorus, played four times. Modulate up a fourth for the guitar solo. Lyrics about Steve’s misfortunes in love, a common theme. We played this a lot in the early days, not so much as our set list grew.

Kicked in the Face. Another simplistic ditty, faster than “Backstabber,” but following the same song structure. Instead of a guitar solo after the second and third verses, we put it at the end. Can you guess by the title what Steve’s writing about? Boring in the early days, but got interesting later on: we sped it up ’til our hands hurt playing it so fast, and mixed around the ending so that the chords beneath the solo gave the impression you was runnin’ away down a dead-end alleyway from something big and nasty and turning the corner –

Lonely. Originally Steve titled this “Nobody Like to be Lonely,” to which me and Rich parodied, “Nobody Likes to Have a Sledgehammer Take Off Their Big Toe.” Kinda obvious, so we shortened it. It is basically me playing some ringing arpeggiated chords. Mike adds an emotional fretless bass line and Rich puts some tingling melodic runs here and there. Very moving when played just right.

Will and Won’t Care. My earliest bestest! Originally, me and Steve wrote this somehow along the lines of “The Rover” by Led Zeppelin, but it quickly evolved into something quite different. I’m strumming my Gibson SG clean, a nice chord progression G-D-F-C fairly fast, to a chorus of Amaj7-G-Bbsus2-Csus2. Rich adds some sliding power chords to the verse (a la “Celebration Day” from Zep) and some leads over the chorus. The solo, extended for one of our songs, still gives me shivers. Played with the perfect mix of freneticism and soul, with lots of reverb. Begins and ends with a short vibrato solo over some arpeggiated chords. This tune always ended our sets in the early days.

White Lightning. Another simple early tune that we kept fiddling with to make interesting. Essentially a bouncing A riff with descending arpeggios after the vocal line, to some G-D-F power chords for the solo. That’s it. Initially the middle solo section was played in triplet fashion, going for a “Beck’s Bolero” vibe. But we always messed around with it. Sometimes modulating up or down a step. I even wanted to do the guitar solo from Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf” in there for a neat little reference for whoever was paying attention out in the audience. The ending featured, later on, me and Rich playing simple harmonized leads together. Generic lyrics about boy-seeing-girl-on-the-street-for-the-first-time.

Black and Pink. Fast and cool, the hook being Rich playing whammy-d harmonics over my galloping distorted D-C-G riffs. The chorus mixed it up a bit, a little unusual for us by throwing in B-flats, A-flats, and Fs. This song fit perfectly, tempo-wise, with “White Lightning,” so we played ’em both back-to-back live, like Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker” and “Living Loving Maid.” What the title means I have no idea. Includes the immortal lines: “… so many fish in the sea, / … / let’s take our poles to the sea.”

Cold Hell. My heaviest favorite. I wrote this in 1986 playing guitar in my room while my brother was playing something by Kiss in his, the wall in between thudding. The song just fell together in about five minutes. Lots of stop gaps in the songs, repetitive notes, power chord choruses. Joe Walsh chugga-chuggas underneath the guitar solo. Later Mike and John would add some forceful backing vocals. Always played near the end of our set; a crowd pleaser, I suppose, as several people said it was our best.

Do You Want Me? A Rich creation. Original a meandering B – A chugga-chugga riff to a E – B – D chorus. Steve singing to that chick who kicked him in the face and stabbed him in the back. But later on, it got real interesting. And by that, I mean we changed it so we played it so fast and so frantic that Steve eventually stopping singing it. It became impossible to sing over; we played it as an instrumental. Awesome.

Money. Mike’s entry. A nice hammer-on pull-off riff based on C to low E, a little off-timed to make it interesting. Hard-strummed power chords for the chorus. He and John would harmonize on vocals. A good change of pace and injected a much-needed dose of fresh energy into our set.

Driving Me Crazy. Another effort from Mike with Steve’s input. Our most “pop-y” song, it was fast, fun, simple A-G-D riffs in varied permutations. Bouncy and full of energy. Most like, say, 1989 commercial heavy metal, I think, something I was never into. But the song was … great! More vocal harmonizing from Mike and John. Good lead work from Rich, and it allowed me to play some chords way up the neck of my Les Paul.

In the Distance. Also a Mike ditty, a fun one, written again with Steve. Generic lost-love lyrics, but playing solely by Mike and myself, Mikey on a six-string acoustic, and me playing a twelve-string acoustic. Very fun to play on stage; John and Mike would harmonize beautifully with Steve, accenting words in the chorus. A bitch with keeping all eighteen strings in tune, especially at a live show, but well-worth it.

Endless Line. A resurrected early effort from Rich. Heavy, hard, and fast. That is, a heavy, hard beat powering some fast guitar riffs. A little bit of pre-1987 Metallica, too, thrown in. Mike and John on backing vocals. Good lyrics from Steve, and the song forced him to stretch a bit. The end completely changes key and tempo, with jazzy fills by Mike on bass, and me and Rich trading solos. Nothing groundbreaking on my behalf, but the first time I play a guitar solo on stage.

There may have been others; I’m humming a simply awe-inspiring monster Rich wrote but I can’t recall it’s name. They’re all good, they’re all copyrighted, they’ve all been recorded on demo tapes.

They were all fun to play.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Subtle Hint: Personnel

Mike is more than a character; Mike is a force-of-nature. A chain-smoking, quick-witted, chatty-Kathy, hyperactive, Type-A’s Type A, junk-food-junkie, beer-swilling force-of-nature. He enters a room, he walks on a stage, all eyes go to him and his mass. Also, a veritable bottomless pit of musical knowledge – go ahead, ask him, ask him about Bach or John Coltrane or Dweezil Zappa. He knows the answer. And chances are he can play it on his bass. Mike, this kid four or five years younger than me, playing with us while he’s still in high school, while we’re out drinking at bars, this kid is the best bassist I’ve ever played with.

But wait. Perhaps I should flesh out Steve and Rich a bit more for you, since they are, as is Mike, essential to the Subtle Hint experience.

Rich is the most unique guy that I knew. That’s needs qualification, I know. Let’s see. As a typical white kid in a typical middle-class town with typical friends and schoolmates, all conforming to unwritten codes of image, Rich’s entrance into my life was probably the most eye-opening splash of cold water I ever had. Even more so than a year at college. Long hair, unshaven, purposefully growing his thumbnails to aid his guitar pickin’, he is smart, free-thinking, side-splittingly funny when he wants to be. Knows so much music I am completely clueless. Initially I felt quite inadequate in his presence. He exposed me to Zappa, Husker Du, early early Metallica, Henry Rollins and Black Flag. Stuff I still listen to today, when I try to catch a tiny fragment of those rebellious, dangerous days of my youth.

His guitar playing is much more edgier than mine, more aggressive. In fact, one of the best lessons I learned back then was what he said before just before we hit the stage for an early gig: Play the songs however you want, but always play aggressive. The significant characteristic to his soloing is such a melodic vibrato and a command of tone. He made that block of wood and wire sing like a human voice. So adept is he at it that I often described my role in Subtle Hint as simply to provide a sonic background to make him sound good.

Steve is pure enigma. He brought us all together, he was the impetus from the very beginning, but somehow he was the weakest link in the grand scheme of things. A poster boy for someone who persists in something that he has little talent while completely disregarding the things that he excels at. Steve had to be a singer. No, not a singer. A front man. And all the trappings that came with it. He is a born comedian and a born showman, true, but a born singer he is not. At best he is an imitator: think Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, with all his mannerisms but minus all the scarves, and you’ve nailed Steve’s technique.

The crazy thing is, Steve’s a more-than-decent drummer; he often subbed on drums during those early manifestations I spoke of in previous posts. I thought if he stuck with it he could become an excellent one. It came natural to him, natural like networking and promoting did. The guy always knew other musicians. Was never afraid to work the phone. Never afraid to hand out demo tapes, flyers to shows, or speak to a promoter, no matter how much of a crackpot the dude turned out to be. Drums, yes. Management and managerial duties, sure. But singing … In the beginning, when we were all green and learning the instruments, it sufficed. But eventually we reached a point where it didn’t. More later on that.

Now, back to Mike. I think I first met him when he was fourteen. He answers an ad we put up in a music store, and shows up one day, back when Steve, Rich and I were the Outpatients, cigarette dangling from his mouth, and jams with us. A year or two later, while I’m in Free Reign playing my first live shows, Rich starts playing with him. A year after that, after that phone call from Steve, the four of us start rehearsing all the old songs again.

Mike finds a drummer named John, who immediately fits in with us. Drummers were always the weak link with us. Couldn’t find good ones, in the early days. Then, once we found good ones, they turned out to be head cases, basket cases, nut cases. One drummer quit because he decided to concentrate full-time on his job working for his girlfriend’s dad at Goodyear. Another was cruising off a high-paid settlement from a metal girder landing on his head. But this guy John fits right in. I never grow close to him, but he is soft-spoken, funny, a little aloof, but quite skillful – more jazzy than power, I’d say – behind the drum set. Even brings along his best buddy, a Garth-from-Wayne’s World-lookalike named Jim who roadies for us.

The goal is no longer just to party. No longer just to figure out cool riffs that fit together. No longer to work on improving our skill on our particular instruments. No. The goal now is to be a real band, playing real original songs, real live shows, developing a following, a repertoire, and getting signed. Getting paid to play, to write, and to be in a band. That is the goal. That is the next step. Five years since I walked up that street and came across Steve and Rich jamming in a garage, we finally have a team assembled and ready to go.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Subtle Hint: Foundations

Five years and three manifestations later, Subtle Hint was born.

But I get ahead of myself.

That whole freshman year at college one thing and one thing dominated my mind: well, I’m not going to talk about that here. The other thing that constantly buzzed in my brain was my guitar, and music. I became heavily immersed in Rush, particularly the early albums up to Permanent Waves. My playing improved as I struggled to master the technique of Alex Lifeson. My creativity grew, too, as I started to come up with cool riffs and chord progressions and jotted them down here and there.

Winter break, and I met Steve again, quite by random, at a Burger King. He remembered me from the previous summer mini-jam-thing. “Hey, LE,” he shouted from his car, leaving the parking lot as me and Bob were pulling in, “you still play?”

“Yeah! But I’m at college.”

“I’m starting a band. Stop by when you get out for the summer,” and he peeled away, not knowing what a burning image he planted in my mind.

I’m going to be in a band!

Suddenly, my studies didn’t matter. That other thing didn’t matter, either. Actually, one thing did: that damn guitar. I mastered a slew of Rush songs, learned Physical Graffiti by heart, and started writing songs I could use in this future band.

That summer was … well, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic … it was the greatest summer of my life. I met up with Steve May 25, and the next day we jammed with Rich and this high school kid he had playing drums for us. “Black Dog” by Zeppelin was too hard for him, so we focused on AC/DC, simple 4/4 power-chord stuff. I can’t describe the joy I felt playing in that grimy ghetto basement. People I didn’t know came and went. There was beer, there was cigarettes, there was light recreational drugs, there was simply no authority. And I was important, because I was in the band.

All that went on that summer is the subject of its own post one day, when I can truly do it justice. For now, all I wish to say is this: we learned to play as a band, we wrote half-a-dozen songs, we recorded the four most promising at a recording studio, we got them copyrighted on a day trip down to the Library of Congress at Washington DC. It was for this purpose that we came up with a name: The Outpatients. We never played live, though, only in Steve’s basement. Our rehearsals became parties and our parties became jam sessions.

The main reason we never played live was that we never filled out the band. We had Steve for vocals, Rich on lead guitar, and me on rhythm. Occasionally Russell the high-school kid played drums for us; occasionally Steve did.

I dropped out halfway into my sophomore year, mainly to concentrate on my new girlfriend and push the band farther. Pumpkinskum was born. I remember a meeting Steve set up with this alleged high-caliber drummer. We went to this dude’s basement studio, all his buddies present, with all our equipment, and blew them all away with one single, tight, well-rehearsed, well-performed song. That was a powerful feeling, one that was never surpassed though easily matched a couple of times in the next few years.

Pumpkinskum floated around for a few months with a few drummers joining in. Eventually Steve drifted away, and Rich and I did our own thing with a drummer friend he worked with that summer. A couple of newer, more complex tunes developed, as well as some funny stuff. Rich had a Tascam, a mini 4-track recorder, and we got some very high-quality recordings of rehearsals. We fiddled around with high-pitched vocals, low-pitched vocals, backward messaging, backward soloing, a whole bunch of weirdities. We even made a PSA featuring us doing some celebrity imitations. I did Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rich did Pee Wee Herman.

The next year I drifted away from Rich and Steve came back in the picture – this time, recruiting me to play bass for a mutual friend’s band. Well, actually Per formed the band, which he dubbed Free Reign, to play a gig at the local community college talent show. We had a week to come up with a song. It was like an all-star jam band: too many musicians, nobody knowing what to play, people eventually playing different instruments than they were at the beginning of the week. Heady times, heady times. Lots of adrenaline. And I got my first live performance under my belt, and let me tell you: what a powerful aphrodisiac. We expanded to a four-song set (including an awesome cover of “Down By The River”) at an outdoor festival at the college that summer.

I spent the next year playing with the remnants of Free Reign (Per dropped out to pursue other things), and eventually it dwindled down to drummer Rob and me. Rob was a huge Rush fan, too. So, twice a week I’d go to his house and we’d play two or three hours of Rush covers. I enjoyed most “No One At The Bridge,” “The Analog Kid,” “Countdown,” and “Xanadu,” among a whole host of others, including most of the first album. We also drove his mother crazy upstairs with ten or twelve minute versions of “The Wurm,” the repetitive 3-chord finale sequence to Yes’ “Starship Trooper.”

Another year went by, with me working full-time, single again, finishing up an associate’s degree at night school, and playing guitar sporadically.

Then, as often happened back then, Steve called, and my life changed.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Subtle Hint: LE

It happened, I think, during the summer between freshman and sophomore years. It came out of the blue, unexpected, without any real prompting. Sure, there was MTV in the innocence of its infancy, back when they actually played music videos and were not lasciviously trying to subvert the culture. Sure, there was the classic rock battle between WNEW and Q104.3. Still, the desire suddenly appeared where it didn’t previously exist, and it demanded immediate satisfaction.

I had to get an electric guitar.

Oh, I had experience with the guitar, to be sure. Well, distant experience. When I was about nine or ten my mother bought me an acoustic guitar and some lessons. Perhaps a dozen. I didn’t get much farther than “Goodbye Old Paint,” and a passing familiarity with the stylings of Neil Diamond (a songbook bought for me), and I don’t even recall what happened to that acoustic. But five years later, I needed an electric.

I had no money. No job and no income. My parents were recently divorced and we was po’. Living in cramped quarters renting the second floor of a two-story house. But I did have a yellow Honda moped purchased with some cashed-in savings bonds. I wasn’t really into it, and after that little spill where my brains almost spilled out of my head, things just kinda clicked. I sold it, and my mother promptly drove me, all proud and flush with cash, to that world-famous mecca of guitars:


No kidding. My first guitar was a crappy sunburst imitation Stratocaster. Never stayed in tune, but no matter. It had a whammy bar. Didn’t know how to tune it, but no matter. That whammy bar was cool. Couldn’t afford an amp, but no matter. All day every day, while my ma worked and I sat in the summer heat in that upstairs apartment watching ZZ Top and Duran Duran, I did dive bombs on that whammy bar.

Memories are vague, here, but I had to return it to the store for some reason. I exchanged it for a Hondo. For those in the know, there’s Les Pauls, there’s Stratocasters and Telecasters, and then there’s Hondos. About six thousand five hundred and forty-three degrees removed from the Les Pauls, Strats and Tellys in terms of quality. But it was cherry red, and, hey, it had a whammy bar. Maybe there was a deal, ’cause now I had an amp. A Crate, about the size and sound of a shoebox, if shoeboxes emitted sonic vibrations. But it started me on the path.

I won’t go into the music I was into at this stage (I think some other post’s covered that old turf), but I primarily focused on Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, and The Who, and to a lesser extent, Pink Floyd, because those are the songbooks I got that Christmas, to learn how to play. That is, after I figured out how to tune the damn thing and how to find notes on the fretboard. Oh, and chords. Especially those demonic barre chords (it took me a good two years before I could master them, particularly the movable “A” shape).

The next couple of summers I’d bike to the nearest mall (a good ten miles away – how the heck did I do that back then?), go to the Sam Goody’s with the wall full of music books, and read them, memorizing notes and chords. For some reason guitar tab wasn’t big back then, so I had to re-learn all that piano music notation, you know, Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge and All Cows Eat Grass and all that.

Before I knew it, I was playing such ditties as “Dazed and Confused,” “Pinball Wizard,” “Highway to Hell,” “Wish You Were Here,” and a whole bunch more, mostly snippets here and there. Occasionally I figured something out that I heard on the radio, like “Day Tripper” by the Beatles. I was never much of a soloist (something that just comes naturally to some – think of a prepubescent Angus Young churning out soulful blues solos like “Ride On”), so I just focused on rhythm. My life changed when I saved and bought a Black Sabbath songbook and learned those power fifth chords.

There was an awesome guitar book that I found in my local library. It may actually have been called the Awesome Guitar Book but I think it was something more along the lines of the Ultimate Guitar Book. Anyway, it was the answer to my prayers. It covered everything, the hardware and software, so to speak, of playing the instrument. Best of all was that it was comprehensive and understandable For the first time I knew what the pentatonic scale was, as well as all the others: major, minor, modal. Alternate tunings. Harmonics. Hammer-Ons and Pull-Offs. Vibrato. I stood before this tome enlightened.

I was fascinated by history – particularly the personalities and performers that molded the history of this wonderful instrument. The Ultimate Guitar Book actually began with a dozen or so pages of hagiography of the great ones, compete with action photos: Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Frank Zappa. Through intensive research I pieced together the prehistory of Led Zeppelin, the greatest band in the world, focusing on its pre-bloom manifestation as the Yardbirds in all their guitar hero glory. Remember, this was quite an accomplishment in the days before the Internet. And the days before Guitar Hero.

The stage was set. My senior summer year I pal’d around with a friend who had a friend who had a friend who played guitar. One night, unplanned and unhurried, a beer or two swimming in my veins, I walked a few blocks up the street and stumbled across my friend’s friend and his friend, jamming in a garage. A slight prompting was all it took for me to hop in his car, retrieve my Hondo and Crate, return and jam. My first jam session. The guy playing with me was good: soulful, melodic, and a technique quite unlike anything I ever heard before. I played some twelve-bar blues for him to run over, maybe even the Am-G-F thingie at the end of “Stairway to Heaven.” I was blown away, but had to go away to college in a few days for the next school year.

My friend’s name was Bob, but he had many aliases: Boogie Dog, Tank, the Master of Unreality. His friend’s name was Steve, and Steve’s friend, the guitarist who floored me that day, was Rich.

Rich, a.k.a. Blind Lemon, a.k.a. Sven, a.k.a. Spud, has a much larger role to play in the upcoming saga of Subtle Hint.