Wednesday, December 19, 2012

True Confessions: I was a Department Store Santa Claus


It's true. Back in my younger, slightly thinner days I had the unlikely job as a Santa Claus at Kaufmann's Department Store in downtown Pittsburgh, PA. In 1990 I had left my career as a counselor to delinquent teens and had been living on savings and the first few dribbles of a freelance writing and art career. I needed a job. At the time my friend Lori worked for Western Temporary Services (full-time, in their office, not as a Temp). At that time Western was one of the largest suppliers of Santa Claus “helpers” in the area. She knew I needed cash and genuinely thought that my demeanor would make me a good Santa Claus. She was right, on both counts.

So, I attended Santa school to learn the intricacies of the profession. Reindeer names, that year's biggest toy hits, how to speak with children, how to deal with unruly kids and, in my experience, even unrulier adults. I earned my Santa diploma and was ready to deploy.

I went through this routine for six years. Western handed out various assignments. We were needed at malls and private parties and various stores. While I did a number of different assignments over the years, due to my not having any kind of regular work schedule elsewhere I was assigned primarily to Kaufmann's during the weekdays. There were a couple of older guys who were longtime veterans of the Santa game (Earl and Al... Merry Christmas if you're out there), who were also Kaufmann's regulars.

Kaufmann's provided our uniforms, one specifically for each of us so we didn't have to use each others. They were cleaned for us every week. There was a backroom where these were kept that served as a changing room.



Though I have never been svelte, I was not really big enough to play Santa. I had a special pillow I used for my belly. Even with it some adults jokingly commented that Santa must have been on a diet that year. The Kaufmann's setup was great. Unlike the malls where Santa is out and on view at all times we had a small room with Santa's throne that was enclosed. Kids would line up outside in Santa Land where there were decorations and a TV playing kid's movies to keep them entertained while they waited. There were times when the line got really long. Schools would bring busloads in to see Santa. At other times, weekdays early in the season primarily, when things were really quiet.

Over the years I worked with a number of great photographers and “Santa's Helpers” and though at the time we bonded over many of our experiences I'm sad to say at the moment I don't remember a single name (this was 20 years ago and I never saw any of them in any other context... some of them never saw me out of uniform).


This was the daughter of the guy who ran the photography
studio. She worked with me every year. You would think I
would remember her name. I don't.

One of my Elves. She was there at least two years.

Another one of the photographers.

More elves.

This must have been 1993 since we're hyping
up my issue of Grey Legacy. The dark haired girl
was a friend of the photographer's daughter.


I saw hundreds of people over the years, maybe thousands, and had my picture taken with most of them. It's kind of weird to realize that even now, all this time later, my picture is in family photo albums all over southwestern Pennsylvania. Every Santa kind of looks alike, but I would know myself from the eyes. If you had your picture taken with Santa at Kaufmann's between 1990 and 1995 there's a pretty good chance that's my lap you're sitting on.

In 1992 or '93 I received a phone call the night before the Pittsburgh Christmas Parade. The Santa they used every year had come down with the flu. They asked if I could fill in. So I drove down to the Civic Arena early the next morning, changed in my car and boarded the float. We trundled through downtown Pittsburgh and I waved at the throngs of people that lined the street. The positive energy being directed my way was amazing. At one point Pittsburgh sportscaster John Fedko climbed onto the float and told me we were going on live TV in two minutes. I had not been told to expect this. He asked me a couple of questions that I honestly don't remember, then asked me for a Holiday message to the world. No pressure, right? I riffed on the usual Peace and Good Will idea and ended by asking everybody to be kind to each other. Then Fedko thanked me, got off the float and we moved on.

There were days in the long year in between Santa gigs when all I could remember was how uncomfortable the suit was, and to tell the truth as December rolled around I would find myself dreading going back. But the money was good... at least better than the other temp jobs I was doing at the time. I would enter the store on my first day and ride the narrow escalators up to Santa Land feeling a certain amount of trepidation and wondering what was wrong with my life. Probably not the best attitude for someone who was supposed to be bringing joy to children. I'm happy to say that the feeling passed quickly and I got into the spirit of things (though I admit to feeling some post-traumatic stress nerves every time I went into Kaufmann's for any reason for years afterward).

By all accounts I was a great Santa. I was not the most bombastic Santa ever. My Ho-Ho-Ho's were more of a deep belly laugh rather than a loud (and frightening to some kids) exhortation. But I was kind to the children and listened to whatever they had to say. In the long run this approach allowed me to be more accessible and less frightening. Many of the experiences blur together, of course. I saw a lot of people. I'm happy to say that now my memories are mostly of the positive things. I remember a couple of obnoxious parents, but most of the kids were great. No one ever tried to pull off my beard. No one peed on me. There are of course some people and moments that stand out.

There were a pair of sisters who had had their picture taken together with Santa every year since they were babies. They were, I believe, 21 and 17 the first year I saw them. Their annual picture was with me for at least five of the six years I was there. I hope they're still getting their picture taken with Santa.

There was a little girl from, I'm assuming, a fairly wealthy family. She came in every year with her brand new leather jacket and boots that probably cost more than I made the whole Christmas season.

There was the woman who brought her newborn in for his first Christmas picture with Santa. When I say newborn what I mean is, given the size of this baby I'm pretty sure she gave birth in the elevator on the way up. I literally held him in the palm of one hand.

There was the little boy who was scared to death of Santa. His Mom brought him back every evening for an entire week. I didn't see him the first four nights. Another Santa was on duty. Apparently, the first night he didn't make it across the threshold of Santa Land, but Mom was kind and persistent and didn't push, and every night he got a little bit closer. On the fifth night, the first time I saw him, he came into Santa's sanctum. There was no one else around that night, so I talked to him calmly and before we knew it I was sitting on the floor playing with him with some of the toys we had there. I heard Mom say to the photographer, “That's a different Santa tonight, isn't it?” Before they left that night we had taken the most joyous and happy picture of a kid on Santa's lap you could ever imagine. He's gotta be close to twenty by now.

There was an older woman who came in one night. I'm making an assumption here, but I'm going to say she was mentally ill in some fashion. She came in and talked to me about the problems of the world and how sad that made her, and how thankful she was that Santa was there once a year to make things better. As she spoke I came to realize that she actually believed, at least in that moment, that Santa was real and that I was him. She came back the next night to give me a handwritten letter asking for all the things she believed the world needed from Santa. She may not have been well, but her wish list for the world was dead on.

Dozens of scared kids, wringing their hands and twisting their Christmas clothes. Dozens of excited kids, talking really fast and shaking. A little girl who ran and jumped onto me, straddling my lap and facing me while talking a mile a minute. I hope wherever she is now she has found other moments in her life where she was as happy as she was right then. Some brought me gifts: candy or drawings they had made. Some were simply too shy to talk.

My favorite anecdote of course is the one that involves my own godchildren. They are eighteen and sixteen now, but at the time Gabby was not quite three and Julian was ten months old. I had made plans with their mother, Dar, for us all to go get dinner after my shift. She brought them in right at the very end of the day. The idea was they could see Santa and then I could go change and meet them after. Dar brought Julian in and handed him to me. He was content. I think he probably recognized my scent and he was certainly used to me holding him at the time. Gabby, who has always been shy, got to the threshold of the room and stopped cold. She didn't cry, but she certainly wasn't coming any closer. I talked to her in my non-threatening Santa voice, but I couldn't convince her to come in. I can't do justice to her expression with words. She furrowed her brow and scrunched up her lips and looked at me through a curtain of blonde hair. Nothing could get her to move.

Eventually we stopped trying. Neither Dar or I pressured her to do anything she didn't want to do, and she certainly wanted no part of Santa. My shift ended and Dar and the kids shopped around while I changed back into my street clothes. When I came back out into the shopping area Gabby saw me. Her eyes lit up. She yelled “Wayne!” and ran across the floor to jump up into my arms.

Guess what?” she chimed, really, really excited.

What?” I asked.

I just saw Santa Claus!!!”

Oh, you did, did you?”

My picture as Santa hung on their refrigerator every Christmas for years and as children neither of them ever recognized me. As they got older and their belief began to waver Dar took the picture down. She got it out again last year, which was the first time I told them this story.

This is the refrigerator pic, a little worse for wear.


Like a lot of people as we get older my enthusiasm for Christmas has waned. There's a lot of expectation for happiness that leads to disappointment. We're all busy and the extra shopping and extra money needed can be frustrating. I don't like the overblown commercialization and commodification that comes with the whole thing. The greed that leads to Black Friday style obnoxiousness really gets me down.

But then I remember my years as Santa. I remember the joy on all of those faces. I remember the energy of the parade. For the kids, even though they had their Christmas lists and wanted things, it wasn't about greed. It was about being rewarded for being good. It was about believing in magic, and for a few brief weeks every year for a few years I embodied that magic. There is a shamanic tradition of wearing a mask and a costume in order to embody the powers of the thing you are emulating. While I was in the Santa suit I believed in Santa. I believed in myself. I believed in magic and for a short time I allowed other people to believe as well. It's the magic of giving, not of things but of yourself and your love to friends and family. It's the belief that in the darkest part of winter light and warmth will come back into the world. We need to give the gift of light and warmth to each other. Like I said to John Fedko as a Christmas message to the world, “Be kind to each other.”

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Television Interview

This past Monday I was interviewed about comics for a local television newsmagazine called Ohio Valley Tonight. Host Nathan Marshall tracked me down through Phantom of the Attic Comics last Friday and asked if I could come in. It was short notice, but I had already scheduled a day off, so why not?

I drove to Wellsburg, West Virginia to a great studio located in Brooke High school. We went through the interview about three times to establish different camera angles and to elaborate on some of the questions. Nathan and his team did a great job editing the footage and popping in some great graphics.



The episode airs on Friday night, 12/14/12 on WTRF TV out of Wheeling, West Virginia.

Nathan and I mugging for the camera.


The crew hypes up some of my various books.


Thanks, Nathan!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Support for Dave Whaley

This week I have found my faith in humanity restored a little. Not that I'm ever the complete curmudgeon. I tend to be the optimist and believe the best of people. I usually believe that most people, when it comes right down to it, genuinely care about other, their friends, family and community if not the rest of the world. But, there are times when watching the news or reading news reports about the horrible things that take place every day that it is difficult to maintain that positive attitude. The recent political climate and the mean-spirited discourse that defined it hasn't helped. This post isn't about that at all, so I don't want this to become a political rant. My leanings are pretty obvious to anyone who knows me. But there was a polarization and overall nasty tone to the whole that neither side is innocent of. I'm also kind of appalled by the general level of snark that infuses much of what I see in people's personal posts, on Facebook or message boards or comments sections or whatever. The continual complaining gets tiresome when we live in a world that our ancestors from not very long ago would consider miraculous and filled with magic.

Anyway, the first part of this story is part of the ugly side of things, and there are no words to describe how sorry I am that this occurred.

Last weekend an acquaintance of mine, Dave Whaley, was assaulted on the Southside of Pittsburgh. I say acquaintance because while I've known Dave for years I can't say I know him well. He works at a music store I have frequented for a long time. He is a local musician I have seen play over the years in various bands. He is very close friends with people I am very close friends with. He is a fixture in the larger Pittsburgh community I consider myself to be a part of. Dave is one of the quietest and nicest people you will ever meet.

I saw him last Saturday night. I was out with a group of friends at a restaurant/bar. The place featured Karaoke, and while that's not why we chose this place we had a lot of fun. Dave wasn't part of our group, but he had stopped by our table to say “Hi.” While we were putting on our coats and getting ready to leave someone was performing Fairies Wear Boots by Black Sabbath and I was amused to see that Dave and I were the only people in the audience who were singing along (quietly and to ourselves, of course).

About a half an hour later Dave was assaulted on his walk home.

From what I gather a car flew through a red light and came very close to hitting him. Dave yelled for the driver to slow down. I have a tough time imagining Dave even yelling at someone, so I doubt it was much more heated than that. The driver stopped, got out and cold cocked Dave in the face, knocking him unconscious and breaking his orbital bone in a couple of places.



You can read the news story HERE.

There is not a very good description of the assailant, so unfortunately it seems the chances of catching him are remote.

Dave was hospitalized and had surgery on Tuesday. He's home now and by all accounts is doing well. As a musician and someone who works at a small independently owned business he does not have insurance. In addition to the pain and physical and emotional trauma this experience could lead to financial ruin. One punch by a drunken, rage-filled moron could destroy a man's life.

And here's where my faith comes back...

The outpouring of support from Dave's friends and the wider community has been phenomenal. A Dave Whaley Support page was set up on Facebook. There is a website called Youcaring.com that's like a Kickstarter for healthcare. In a little over 24 hours the site had collected $8000 to help pay Dave's medical expenses (and as of this posting there is still time to donate... go to Dave's page at http://www.youcaring.com/medical-fundraiser/Dave-Whaley-Medical-Fund/26029). This money is all from private donations from people who care about Dave.

But that's not all. There are at least five local events planned as fundraisers. Local bands donating their time to help one of their own. I heard there was a tattoo/piercing shop that would donate the entire cost of a piercing if the customer mentioned Dave. A restaurant gave 15% of your bill to the fund if you mentioned Dave. T-shirts supporting him are being sold and the printing cost of them was donated.




Many Southside bars, restaurants and other establishments have banded together to raise awareness of violence and crime in their neighborhood in response to this incident because they realize this effects them all. Dave is going to need ongoing post-surgery vision rehabilitation, and someone found a specialist willing to donate the service for free, sort of a medical version of pro bono work.

While I am pained that this incident had to happen I am so proud of my community, my friends and my city. This is what it means to take care of each other. When it's someone you know and care about it's easy to justify helping to pay for their healthcare. It's easy to see how a single moment in someone's life can destroy them financially. It's a real person with real value and not an anonymous statistic. This is not about politics, it's about being decent human beings. It's about recognizing this could happen to anyone and any of us could find ourselves in a similar situation in a heartbeat. One minute you're singing a Black Sabbath tune and the next you're unconscious on the sidewalk.

Why can't we be this caring and supportive of everyone?

Other than Dave there were two kinds of people involved in this incident. One was a rage-fueled asshole who didn't care about anything other than his own hurt feelings and self-importance. The other kind is the multitude of people who showed they genuinely care about the well-being of another human being. We need to extrapolate this personal connection to a specific person to the world at large.

Who do you want to be... A rage-filled asshole or someone who understands we're all in this together?

Monday, November 12, 2012

New 5-Star review for my ebook Scratch on Amazon!



5.0 out of 5 stars
 
A wonderful, rewarding read.November 11, 2012
By 
Special K "Kegg" (Pittsburgh, PA) - See all my reviews
Amazon Verified Purchase(What's this?)
This review is from: Scratch (Kindle Edition)
I first started reading scratch because of the free, relatively lengthy sample that was given and almost immediately found myself sucked into the believable, yet slightly mystical world that Wayne Wise had crafted. I was hooked, and at the extremely affordable price, dove right in.

There is nothing not to like about this novel. There's great characterization, plot progression, the pacing feels consistent and doesn't drag, and the story ends just as one expects it to given how it unfolds before the conclusion. By far, what stood out most to me were the characters. You'll almost immediately revile Billy, laugh with the adorable Michaela (Mike), empathize with Adam's personal journey of discovery, shake your head at Shelly's pettiness, admire the charming Jack, respect Caroline's wit, and so much more. You may even find yourself liking minor characters like Joe and Elmer.

The journey that Wayne Wise takes you in surprisingly packs quite an emotional punch, and I was not expecting this given the sample. While there is a "supernatural thriller" aspect to this story, it is the human characters and their interactions that make this book so compelling. They run the gamut of emotions such as: fear, selfless love, heartfelt anger, deep-seated bitterness, duty, regret, and the like. This makes them both personable and relatable. It feels like you're right alongside with them as their paths intersect with one another's in both predictable and not quite so predictable ways.

Mr. Wise's personal knowledge, love, and respect for the areas visited shine through with descriptions that make you want to visit the Record Cavern on Craig Street or the beautiful mountains of Canaan itself.

Take the plunge. You can read this wonderfully written work that's the right combination of heart, child-like awe, humor, and mysticism, just to name a few ingredients. PARENTAL ADVISORY : For the parents out there, I'd say this one is for young adults and older as there is a bit of profanity, some sexual content, some violent situations, and potentially scary supernatural portions. That being said, none of the above feel forced or excessive and only make the emotional impact that much more compelling. Treat yourself to this underpriced gem. You won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

2 new 4-Star reviews for Bedivere

I just found two 4 star reviews for my ebook Bedivere: The King's Right Hand on Goodreads.

http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/12507730-bedivere-book-one#other_reviews

One of them posted a review as well.

"I very much enjoyed this book, the author really made the character of Bedivere come alive and all the characters were well drawn, with the likable ones being very likable.

I haven't read an Arthurian tale that focuses on the view point of someone who knew Arthur from the beginning but not as king, so this was a fresh take on events from my point of view.

Since this is referred to as Book One, I hope that more is to come and will look forward to reading how Arthur's reign turns out and how the author deals with the well-known legends."

Friday, October 12, 2012

Sweet Obsession


Do you ever get stupidly obsessed with something for no apparent reason? It could be anything, and suddenly you just can't get enough of it? Then you feel the need to share and talk about your obsession with everyone you know (like I'm about to do in this blog post)? It happens to me every once in awhile. Sometimes it's because I've discovered something new and want to know everything I can about it. As bizarre as it may sound to some people I love to research the things I get obsessed with. Some of that is my lifelong love of history, some of it is just wanting to know where things come from. I did it with Arthurian fiction, mythology, and any one of a number of other topics that have captured my interest over the years. I get into a new band and start discovering their precedents and influences. I go back farther and farther and discover a lot of great music along the way. The same is true of the comics I'm into. Both of these hobbies are life-long obsessions for me, but I'm still finding connections I didn't know existed.

And then sometimes it's a renewed obsession with something I've been into for a long time. Something reignites my interest and I'm off for a couple of weeks reading and/or listening to everything I can. It happened last year with David Bowie when I read the Starman biography. It happened recently with Love and Rockets (the comic... I swear I'll write those blogs someday), and I have spent a lot of time lately rereading them.

The last two weeks it has been the 1970's Glam Rock band The Sweet.

MickTucker-Drums, Brian Connelly-Vocals, Steve Priest-Bass, Andy Scott-Guitar


You probably know them from their songs Little Willy, Ballroom Blitz, Fox on the Run, and Love is Like Oxygen. Chances are those are the only songs by The Sweet you've heard unless you're a fan. It started when I listened to a collection of live tracks and studio outtakes on Spotify recently. Even though I've listened to them off and on for years and have read about them and watched some documentaries and YouTube videos (see... not really a casual fan before all this), something about this collection set off my obsessive tendencies. I've been tracking down obscure and out-of-print music, rewatching the documentaries, searching the internet... the whole bit. I discovered there was a biography of the band called Blockbuster: The True Story of The Sweet and luckily my local library had a copy in stock (Yay for the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh!). There is a long out-of-print autobiography by bassist Steve Priest called Are You Ready, Steve? that I would love to read. Anyone have $900 for the Buy-It-Now copy I saw on Ebay?

The Sweet had a strange and varied career. They went through several changes in style and public perception, from Bubblegum to Pop Rock to Hard Rock to Prog Rock (though the categories are debatable, I'm sure). In the beginning they seemed to be little more than a teenybopper Bubblegum Pop band, and they were very successful at it. As much as we music fans tend to think of the early 70's as the time of the birth of bands like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and many others of this ilk, the truth is, in Great Britain at least, and to a large extent here in the US, the top 40 was full of Bubblegum Pop. Sugar Sugar by The Archies, an overtly made-up band based on the comic book characters, was the top-selling #1 song of 1969. There was a lot of money to be made with Bubblegum and a lot of people were making it. Two of the most successful purveyors of Bubblegum were the British songwriting team of Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman. For several years they churned out one top 10 song after another for a variety of bands, The Sweet among them.

On a lot of these early singles, though the vocals and harmonies were by the four members of the band, most of the music was performed by studio session musicians. This was a fairly common practice then, and The Sweet weren't the only successful band this happened to. Unlike many others, The Sweet were actually fairly accomplished musicians and constantly pushed to be allowed to record on their own records. They were allowed to do so on most of their b-sides. One of the qualities that set Sweet apart from many of their contemporaries was the strength of their incredible vocal four-part harmonies. Queen is known for the same, and are probably the undisputed champions. None of the members of Sweet could match Freddie Mercury's sheer range and versatility. But, as a distinct band sound, The Sweet were doing this for quite some time before Queen's first album hit the shelves.

They quickly jumped onto the fashion and make-up that was to become the signature of Glam Rock. It started with simple stage make-up and clothing and quickly escalated from there. Whereas T.Rex's Marc Bolan's experiments with glitter and feather boas was seen as just part of who he was, and David Bowie's stage personas were crafted with a more calculating eye, The Sweet were, to use the British vernacular, just taking the piss out of people. Through their sense of humor they took the image to extremes, usually pre-dating and influencing everyone else in the scene. But every time they took the look up a notch more people noticed and they became more famous. They tapped into the androgyny and repressed sexuality of the scene and played it to the hilt. Though straight they embraced a lot of cliché gay imagery and mannerisms.



Benny Hill and Monty Python could dress up like old tarts and it was funny. The Sweet, and the rest of the movement, were threatening to the middle class, in terms of image if not the music they were producing at the time. Bassist Steve Priest in particular went out of his way to stir things up, from wearing hot pants on Top of the Pops (a good six months before Bowie did the same thing to public outcry), to appearing on a Christmas special dressed as a gay stormtrooper, replete with WWI spiked German helmet, lipstick, rouge, and a little Hitler mustache.

I can't find a single still image of this on the internet.


Priest once described The Sweet's approach to all of this as “more camp than a row of tents”.



Though they wanted to be taken seriously as a Rock band, their reputation as Bubblegum teenybopper fodder kept critics and a more mature audience from taking them seriously. The other problem was that the singles were making them ridiculously wealthy. It was difficult to turn your back on another Chinn-Chapman composition that was going to go into the top 10. They did eventually begin to move past this impasse, primarily by being allowed to play on their records, and on the strength of their live performances.

Living in the States I didn't know any of this. The Glam movement never really took hold here in the same way as it did elsewhere, and I'm just young enough to have missed it anyway. I was catching the tail-end of it with Elton John's costuming and a couple of Bowie singles. I was into Alice Cooper and jumped on the KISS bus as soon as I saw them, but they were both darker, less androgynous versions of Glam. I'm pretty sure if I had seen pictures of the Sweet in full regalia I would have been interested, but by the time I was reading the actual Rock magazines the Sweet weren't being covered a whole lot, and when they were their image had moved on. I bought the singles of Ballroom Blitz (another Chinn-Chapman tune), and Fox on the Run (the first single written and produced by the band, and their biggest hit in the US), and really loved both songs. I remember looking at their Desolation Boulevard album in record stores based on the strength of the singles, but for some reason I never picked it up. There was probably a new KISS album I needed to buy on my limited budget.

Sometime in 1976 or '77 I joined the Columbia House record club. You sent in a penny and got 10 or 12 albums, then were obligated to buy several more at full price over the next three years. I don't specifically remember most of the records I purchased through this service, but I did choose Give Us a Wink by The Sweet as part of my original purchase. Having never heard the British term wank before I didn't get any of the sexual innuendo (though the less-than-subtle line “up to my balls inside her” in the song Yesterday's Rain certainly, ahem, pricked up my ears).

On the original album the eye on the left was a die-cut hole in
the album sleeve. An inner sleeve had several different images
of an eye, from wide open to closed. When you slid the inner
sleeve out the cover appeared to wink at you. You don't get
that with CD's and mp3's.


Based on the singles I had heard this was not the album I expected. I now know this was the first album the band wrote and performed entirely on their own, and they were going full-on hard rock. Whatever my expectations, I grew to really love this album, and it remains in my personal echelon of favorite records from my teen years.

But, much to the band's dismay, the album really didn't replicate the sales success of earlier efforts. They were a band that seemed plagued by bad luck and bad timing. At every turn it seemed, just as they were poised to take that next step, something set them back. Some of their problems were of their own making, of course, but others were just ridiculous. BBC Radio went on strike just when they released a single, so it went nowhere. BBC thought the phrase “for God's sake” in the single Turn It Down was blasphemous and refused to play it (oh, how times have changed). They were invited to open for The Who by Pete Townsend, who was a big fan of theirs apparently. This would probably have been the biggest show at this point of their career. But singer Brian Connelly was involved in an assault and got kicked in the throat, making him unable to sing for months (and by all accounts he never recovered full use of his voice). They had to back out of the show.

There was one last surge of popularity. The song Love is Like Oxygen hit the charts in America in the late 70's. Like their entire career, they were counted out, but then managed to squeeze out another success. But that was pretty much the end. By this time the ravages of alcohol abuse had taken their toll on Connelly and he left the band. The other three continued on for three more albums that no one bought (as a fan I didn't even know they existed until I read the biography). There was an attempt at a reunion in the late 80's but Connelly's health prevented it from going forward.

Connelly died in 1997 from a series of heart attacks, drummer Mick Tucker in 2002 from leukemia. At present Steve Priest maintains a version of the band in America with all new members. Guitarist Andy Scott does the same thing in England and Europe. Both bands tour and perform the classic songs. Scott's band has released a couple of albums of new material that sounds remarkably like the original band.

So why this obsession on my part right now? I'm not sure. Maybe I'm just feeling nostalgic, though in truth I really didn't experience much of their career first hand. I didn't even hear the vast majority of their songs until they were rereleased on CD in the 90's. But, thanks to a couple of singles and one album they are a band that is linked to my youth. I can't see the makeup and costumes and stage spectaculars of a lot of modern artists without thinking of what came before (and I'm old enough to realize that fans of Liberace probably felt that way about The Sweet, at least in terms of fashion). Part of it is simply that it's fun. It's over the top and slightly ridiculous and just when it needs to it really rocks and most people don't know anything about it.

I'll leave you with a video of Ballroom Blitz. This song probably sums up The Sweet better than any other single song. It's a Chinn and Chapman top single. It has great Connelly vocals, driving Mick Tucker drums, some great rock guitar from Andy, and the requisite amount of Steve Priest camping it up. Enjoy. It's a lot of fun.

Are you ready, Steve?




Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Connections and Vectors and Degrees of Separation


So, I decided I needed to reread all of Gilbert Hernandez Love and Rockets Palomar stories before continuing my ongoing Favorite Comics posts. That's taking a little time, though the experience has been rewarding and worth it. But, in the meantime, I wanted to write about something else.

So I decided to write about Love and Rockets. The band this time, not the comic.

Well, sort of.

This past Sunday night I went to see David J perform at the Thunderbird Cafe, a little bar about a two-minute walk from my apartment. David J was the bass player for Bauhaus and Love and Rockets, as well as having an ongoing solo career, plus having played in some other random bands over the years. It was a really great show, featuring music from his entire career. I was a pretty big fan of most of this music at one time or another, so there were a lot of great moments for me last night.

But the main thing I want to talk about here are the random connections between people and events as we spiral around this planet of several billion people over time. During his performance, as he sang songs from his thirty-plus years in the industry, my mind started recalling all of the various connections I have with David J, though we had never met until last night.

This is rambling and out of any kind of chronological order, and probably of no interest to anyone but me, but I find these sorts of things fascinating. Bear with me.

I discovered Bauhaus late. They originally existed as a band from 1978 to 1983 when I was living in a place with no access to music that was, at that time, fairly obscure. I have since seen video of their live performances from the time, and I'm pretty sure, given my penchant for costumes and theater, that if I had seen them in 1979 I would have gotten into them. As it was it was 1986 before I discovered them when I moved into a college apartment with five other guys. One of them, Steve, had an amazing collection of vinyl records, most of which were alternative bands I had never heard of. To say his record collection changed my musical life is an understatement. That fall, 1986, Love and Rockets second album Express was relatively new and spent a lot of time on the turntable at the apartment. I got really into L&R. It took awhile to associate them with Bauhaus in my mind. I found Bauhaus to be more challenging for me, and it took longer to get into. At the same time I got really turned onto a band called The Jazz Butcher. David J had played bass on two of his albums between his time in Bauhaus and Love and Rockets.

About a year later (November 9, 1987 to be precise... thank you internet search engines), still at Edinboro University of PA, we discovered that Love and Rockets were playing at Indiana University of PA. It was one of those spur-of-the-moment road trips where a friend borrowed his father's van and 10 or 12 of us piled into it for a road trip. L&R were touring for their third album, Earth, Sun, Moon. We got to the Fisher Auditorium and for five bucks, if memory serves, saw not only L&R but another band none of us had ever heard of prior to that evening, Jane's Addiction.

Lookie what I found on the internet!


Two years after that on August 31, 1989 I saw L&R at the Syria Mosque in Pittsburgh. The Pixies, who I had just discovered, opened. Say what you will about L&R, but they could pick great opening bands. The Pixies completely blew me away.

Then, twenty-three years later, I met David J at a bar near my house. We've been pinging around on this planet together for years. This was the same person I had seen on stage all those years ago and our individual trajectories had finally brought us to a very nice personal conversation. That's when I started piecing together all of the various overlapping vectors in our lives.

Back in 1986, at the same time that I was first getting turned on to David J's work, was when I was reading Watchmen for the first time. I didn't know then that David J was friends with Alan Moore and that they had worked together on various projects. I found out most of this not too long after the fact, but still. David had written the musical score for This Vicious Cabaret, a specific chapter of Moore's V For Vendetta, which I had read at this point. He was in a short-live band with Moore called the Sinister Ducks and recorded a song called Old Gangsters Never Die which came with a comics adaptation of the lyrics by Lloyd Thatcher (you can see it here http://asylums.insanejournal.com/scans_daily/474540.html). Since then he has contributed music and participated in Moore's spoken word performances like The Birth Caul and Moon & Serpent Grand Egyptian Theatre of Marvels among others.

1986 is when I first met Steve Bissette and John Totleben, the artists for Moore's Swamp Thing series for DC Comics. For a couple of years I saw Steve and John on a pretty regular basis and hung out with them enough that they know and remember me years later. So even then I was only one degree of separation from Alan Moore, which I knew, and therefore two degrees from David J.

Around this same time (the details of this are a bit fuzzier because I wasn't directly involved) was when the Pixies were coming together as part of the Boston indy music scene. Among several bands that were part of that scene was a group called The Five who were originally from Pittsburgh (The Pixies used to open for The Five). I didn't live in Pittsburgh at the time, but I was coming here fairly regularly for comics and record shopping. One of the comics shops I went to was a place called BEM. Turns out, as I discovered many years later, the proprietor Bill Boichel was friends with the guys in The Five. So I was only three degrees from the Pixies.

In 1990 a couple of friends and I made a trip to Cleveland where we saw The Jazz Butcher at a club called Peabody's Down Under. I met Pat Fish, the Jazz Butcher himself (the only consistent member of the band over their thirty year history), and I also randomly ran into my friend Joelle who had been one of the people crammed in the back of the van with three years earlier (Joelle now lives in New Zealand, opening up a whole new country of potential connections). While there I had Pat autograph the booklet that came with my CD copy of Scandal in Bohemia/Sex and Travel. These were his second and third albums, the ones David J played bass on. At the time this was a very rare German import that I had manged to get my hands on, and for years the only way these two albums were available. When I showed it to Pat his response was something like, “Where the bloody hell did you get this? I've barely seen these.”

A few years later I'm writing for In Pittsburgh Magazine and get the chance to do a phone interview with Frank Black/Black Francis of the Pixies. It ends up being my first cover feature article. One of the musicians opening for Frank at that Pittsburgh show is Reid Paley, former lead singer of The Five. Through a lot of mutual Pittsburgh friends I met and got to know Reid, as well as Five guitarist Tom Moran. At the time Tom was in an Alt-Country band called TheDeliberate Strangers. I saw them a lot and one of my articles about them in No Depression ended up being my first in a nationally published music mag. A couple of years later I met with Reid and some other people for hanging out and drinks at a local bar called the Squirrel Cage and Frank Black is there, just hanging out.

In 2000 the original members of the Jazz Butcher reunite for an American tour and a new album and I met the whole band at the Millvale Industrial Theater (as well as at some small bar in Erie whose name I don't remember). While there I got signatures from drummer O.P. Jones and guitarist Max Eider. Eider had also played guitar on David J's 1989 album Songs From Another Season.

I have a friend, a remarkable poet, by the name of Margaret (check her stuff out at http://margaretbashaar.wordpress.com/). I met Margaret as one of my customers at Phantom of the Attic when she was like twelve. Through her teen years we bonded over Elfquest and now that she's an adult I'm happy to call her a genuine friend. She is part of what for lack of a better term I'm going to call an artist's community that gathers at the Grand Midway Hotel in Windber, PA. The Hotel is home to a mixed group of artists, poets, photographers, musicians, filmmakers, and pretty much anything thing else creative you can think of. I have only been there once, to a really amazing Halloween party. One evening, while having dinner with Margaret the topic turned to music and I mentioned Bauhaus, or Love and Rockets, or something, and Margaret casually mentioned that David J hangs out there occasionally. She had met him one morning in the kitchen of the Hotel while he was attempting to make tea.

Small world.

Margaret and several other denizens of the Midway were at the show on Sunday.

And on Sunday night I completed my quest and got David J's signature on the booklet.

Twenty-two years in the making!


I could go on with these connections. One of Reid's albums was produced by Eric Drew Feldman, former member of Captain Beefheart and regular PJ Harvey collaborator. Reid and Frank Black just released a collaborative album. The lines drawn between musicians seem to connect that whole world, and if you end up knowing one of them your world just gets a little smaller. The same is true of the world of comic books, or of any one of a number of hobbies and professions. When these things overlap it's even more true. What I find most fascinating about all of this is backtracking the history. I was listening to David J, the guy who wrote the prototypical Goth song Bela Lugosi's Dead, and reading Alan Moore, the guy who wrote Watchmen, both genre-changing, significant pieces of Pop Culture history, at a time when they felt worlds away from my life. Twenty-five plus years later I know they weren't a world away, just a couple of steps.

And not to overstate something that we've all known since the advent of Kevin Bacon, that's true of everyone.

Anyway, I just want to end this rambling post with a quote from a Love and Rockets song called A Private Future. I've always thought this was really good advice.

Live the life you love
Use a god you trust
And don't take it all too seriously


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

9/11



This morning on Facebook I saw a lot of posts about September 11, 2001. Of course this is a date that everyone will remember and think about on the anniversary. One of the posts was by my friend Terri. Her son Matthew, who was a baby then, had a homework assignment to interview someone who remembered 9/11. He interviewed his Mom. That resonated with me, because I was at her house in Washington DC that morning.

We all have our stories of that day. Where we were. What we did. How we reacted. This is mine. I don't think I have any great revelations here, or insights. But Terri's post reminded me we now have children who don't remember, and those who were not born yet to whom this is just history and not memory. We should share those stories, not just because we should never forget, but because they help unite us in our humanity.

At the time my friend Fred (whose name regular readers of the blog will recognize as my collaborator of the Grey Legacy comics), was living in an apartment in the house of our mutual friends Terri and Peter in Capitol Hill, about three blocks from the Capitol building. I had driven to DC from Pittsburgh to visit all of them and to see the musician PJ Harvey at the 9:30 Club on the evening of 9/10. She was on tour for her Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea album and played an amazing show. I think that's the night Fred and I walked all the way back home in the middle of the night instead of waiting for a cab.

I had planned to leave early the next day. All of my friends had to go to work, and my car was illegally parked and I wanted to escape the city before getting a ticket. Peter had left for work and Terri had taken Matthew to his daycare, then returned home to get ready for work herself. Fred and I were up, having breakfast and watching one of the morning news shows. I don't remember which one, but at the end of the hour they were planning on interviewing a British man who was the world's foremost “Ugly Model.” I don't know why I remember that detail, because we never got to see the interview.

Someone broke into the show with garbled information about a plane having crashed into the World Trade Center. Like everyone, we watched in horror as the story unfolded. I can't remember the exact timing, but Terri had seen the news and came down to Fred's apartment to make sure we knew and were watching. We saw the second plane crash into the tower live.

The one thing I specifically remember Terri saying is, “Do you think the Towers might actually collapse?”

The panic hadn't quite set in yet, and Terri decided to call off work and go pick up Matthew at daycare. Fred decided to go with her, and they have their own stories of traffic and confusion. I went to my car to go home.

The route I took out of DC took me past the Pentagon as I made my way to the George Washington Parkway (not the way I usually went, but I think I made an accidental detour). I was very conscious of the low-flying planes coming and going from Ronald Reagan Airport and Dulles. I made it to the Parkway and onto the Beltway and out of DC with very little difficulty. The second tower was hit at 9:03. The Pentagon was hit at 9:37. I drove past the Pentagon during that short thirty-four minute window.

I drove home. I took Route 68 through Maryland instead of the Pennsylvania Turnpike because I had planned on going to my parents house in Greene County, south of Pittsburgh. Very early in the trip I started to get a migraine, something that happens to me periodically. I'm sure the lack of sleep and stress of the morning contributed. I remember it being a really horrible trip. I made the whole four-plus hour drive without hearing any news. Somewhere along 68 I stopped at a convenience store to use the restroom and buy some painkillers. The entire rest stop was in an uproar. They were talking about blocking off the parking lot and closing down and there was a general air of panic. I didn't catch all of it because my head was killing me, so I did what I needed to do and left.

After the fact I looked at some maps and saw that the rest stop was not very far south of Shanksville, PA.

I arrived at Mom and Dad's in the early afternoon. They weren't home. I immediately turned on the TV and the very first image I saw was the smoking Pentagon. That was really when the first real sense of the enormity of the whole thing hit me. I had just been there. I had just seen the Pentagon. When I heard when this happened I realized how close I had been. That was when it really became real to me. In the next few minutes I saw the film of the collapse of the Towers and Terri's words came back to me. I spent the rest of that day trying, futilely, to reach her and Fred (they were all right).

And that's really it for my story. The rest was shock and mourning, like everyone else. I didn't personally know anyone in the Towers or the Pentagon, or on the planes. I know people who were there. I have a cousin who was in New York. She had an appointment at the World Trade Center later that day, but hadn't left her hotel yet. She was among the people who walked out of town. One of my customers at Phantom of the Attic was on the New York subway and didn't know anything was going on at all until he came up onto the sidewalk in time to see the dust cloud and a collapsing building.

I think it's important to remember. I think it's also important not to let this wound define us. That day, and in the days after, we were united as a nation in our grief. That unity, one based on recognizing our shared humanity, is what I think is most important to remember. The victims of 9/11 were men and women, straight and gay, conservative and liberal, Christian, Jew, Muslim, atheist and all the others. So were the first responders and heroes of that day. All of these differences ceased to matter in the face of catastrophe and death. No one stopped to ask religion or party affiliation. In those terrible moments we were all human first, and the natural reaction to other human beings who were suffering was to help.

That gives me hope. That is what we should remember.