Friday, February 29, 2008

Birth of the Poptarts

Just like the protagonist in my fledgling novel, I went north to school (well, to grad school) with rather lofty and serious ambitions: I wanted to be a medievalist and teach in a university. My destination was central New York rather than Manhattan, though, and Syracuse University. Why Syracuse? They gave me the most money and a teaching assistantship.

It is odd, though, now that I think of it. When I was applying, I had a short list of schools. I had already been offered a free ride at my alma mater, which was then Madison College, but I wanted a change. I applied and was accepted at William and Mary, Vanderbilt, and Duke, but of those, only William and Mary offered any financial assistance, and that was in the form of a research assistantship. I didn't relish the idea of doing some professor's research for him or her. Then there was Syracuse. I had put my hand on the catalog while browsing grad school catalogs in the library one day and thought, "Say... maybe I should go north." So I applied. And along came the teaching assistantship. So north I went.

I decided about two weeks into that first semester that a) I hated teaching (could that have had something to do with teaching English 101?) and b) I was thoroughly sick of going to school. I'd been in some sort of school since I stepped inside Mrs. Wright's Playtime Nursery School at the age of four. I was tired of the whole thing. But here I was... might as well slog through. Maybe it would grow on me again.

Before too long, I was part of a little clique of fellow first year English department TAs who were also struggling with the whole nightmare of teaching bored kids "General Essays" (you don't want to know): Gael, who was in the poetry workshop; Marie, who was in the fiction workshop; and Susan, who was a Shakespeare fanatic. We did a lot of kvetching about the department and our fellow grad students. We tried to find something amusing to keep us occupied in Syracuse during its snowiest winter on record. We didn't have much luck. Although one weekend we stumbled upon the Casa di Lisa, a jazz dive in an old diner on Erie Boulevard, where one of our professors was playing piano with a trio. I think he played piano. Anyway, the trio played "Alice Blue Gown" for an hour. That was all they played, while we tried to force down drinks made with powdered mixers. At least the place had a nice seedy bordello-ish vibe. That's the bar, up top of this post. Here are Marie and Gael enjoying the show:

We needed a change. It came in the form of a fellow grad student, Mark Roberts. Or, as he was known on the local music scene, Buddy Love.

He was the front man for a local band called Buddy Love and the Tearjerkers, and we started going out to clubs to watch him play. The band was pretty sloppy, and Buddy was the sloppiest of all, but they were also very engaging. The first time we saw them, they opened for a band called the Flashcubes, the premier "New Wave" band in town. We thought they were way too slick, compared with the Tearjerkers. Har! But we were inspired. If Mark could be in a band, we could too. And Gael and I, at least, could play guitar a bit. And we could sing. And Gael was a poet. She could write lyrics. Pretty soon, we had a pretend band going. It was called The Ball Turret Gunners. What can I say? We were English majors. Who needed real gigs? We had t-shirts made.

We still mostly sat around and kvetched about the department and our students and all, but now we also played guitars and Gael and I would sing Beatles songs and our own originals--ditties such as "Cock of the Wok" (a paean to our favorite Chinese take-out emporium, the Ding-How) and "Lookin' for a Munchkin Mama" (a politically incorrect glance into the psyche of the department's "little person," who also happened to be a rather loathsome troll and would have been so had he been six feet tall). We took on punk pseudonyms: I was "Whippet Out," Gael was "Knickers Down" (to form the songwriting team of Down and Out), Susan was "Bertha d'Blues" (get it?), and I forget what Marie's moniker was.

But then Buddy stopped singing with the band and the Tearjerkers went on hiatus. We began to go see the Flashcubes more, as well as other local bands on the budding punk/new wave scene. One day, we heard that two other girls whom we saw regularly at all the gigs--Meegan and Margie--were going to put a band together--and their name was going to be The Poptarts. We heard they were going to be at the party after Buddy's poetry reading for his thesis, so Gael and I made a tape. We turned off the voice tracks on some of the early Beatles songs (you could do that on the older Beatles LPs--the "stereo" was voices through one speaker and instruments through the other) and recorded ourselves against the instrumental tracks. Gael sang lead, and I sang harmony. We took it to the party and slipped it in the tape deck and Meegan flipped out and cried "It's my dream!" Susan and Gael and I came back from the party no longer Ball Turret Gunners but Poptarts. Marie hadn't gone to the party, and anyway, she was not all that into the whole music scene anyway. She kind of drifted away...

But the Poptarts became a real band. Margie had been learning bass--she had an instrument. Meegan borrowed a Gretsch from her boyfriend Arty, who was the lead guitar player for the Flashcubes. (She later bought herself a powder blue Fender Mustang.) I persuaded my brother to lend me his 1959 short scale Gibson Melody Maker until I could afford my own guitar (which turned out to be my lovely 3/4 scale Rick). Gael was going to be the singer (but she later acquired a black lefty strat--her being a lefty and all, and she and Meegan would trade off lead vocals). Susan bought a set of drums and started to practice, but until she was up to speed, Arty sat in on drums and Susan was our go-go dancer. (Really!) We started practicing, wrote a few songs, learned a few covers, and within three weeks we were playing out, opening for a local band. by our third gig, we were sharing the night with the Dead Ducks (another new-ish band--they couldn't really play either, so we were a good match!). Here is photo evidence of the gig--and notice: Susan is dancing!

By our fifth gig, Susan was sitting behind the drums, and we were opening for a national act, the Laughing Dogs. (Never heard of them? I'm not surprised!) And suddenly we had a real manager and label interest.

To be continued...

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Monday, February 25, 2008

Okay, Okay...

GW wants an excerpt from the novel, and since I have been planning on writing about my life as an aspiring New Wave superstar, I thought I would offer this snippet from the book where Grace, the main character, tells her new friend Stuart about her experience as a Sugar Pop:

“So, you were in a band, huh? What was your name?”

“Don’t tell me you never heard of the Sugar Pops!” Grace affected outrage.

“Sorry, can’t say that I have. Should I?”

“Nah. We used to play weekend gigs on the Thruway circuit every month or so. We were all in college, so we couldn’t go on the road all that much. And, well, it’s hard to get decent gigs in Manhattan. Lots of dives, too much competition for the good rooms. We did okay, though—five girls in short skirts, bopping and playing our own sixties-type pop songs, singing angelic harmonies. That was a good angle.”

“You played... let’s see. Bass.”

“Nope. Rhythm guitar. And I sang the high harmonies and arranged most of the vocals. I still have some demo tapes. That is, I think I do. I wouldn’t be surprised if they went south, too. You’re welcome to listen to them, if I can find them.”

“I’d love to hear them.” Stuart took his eyes off the road for a moment to study Grace. “You’re just full of surprises.”

“I am?” Grace was actually flirting.

“Well, I always thought of you as so serious, so studious. You don’t seem the type to run off to join the circus, if you know what I mean.”

“You’ve formed quite an opinion, for someone who never spoke to me before yesterday.”

“I’m sorry. I just meant that, oh, you seemed so intense back then. In high school. I don’t know.” Stuart was suddenly flustered, shy.

Grace decided to let him off the hook. “I never expected to join a band, either.” She smiled and shook her head. “I was serious. I had no idea what I was going to do when I went up to NYU, only that it was going to be something intellectual and New Yorky. Philosophy, maybe. I hooked up with Maeve and Sarah in an English class. One night we went to CBGB’s to see what all the fuss was about. Maeve was a huge Beatles fan, and she had a bunch of old dolly girl dresses and go-go boots, so we dressed up and headed out. It caused such a stir in this dive of a club that we started to go back every weekend. Pretty soon, we noticed a couple of other girls dressed kind of like us, Gretchen and Maggie. Gretchen’s boyfriend was in a band and he had an extra guitar. And Maggie was learning bass. We decided we had to be able to play as well as some of the guy bands, so I went to a pawn shop and bought a little three-quarter-neck Rickenbacker. Sarah told her parents that she needed extra money for books and bought a sparkly silver drum kit. Maeve decided she’d be the singer. Two weeks later, we were playing loft parties, doing Shirelles and Beatles covers and one or two originals. Then we started playing bars. East Village dives, basements mostly. Suddenly, we had a manager who booked those upstate weekends for us. He even got some record labels interested—well, quite a few, actually—but we never got to sign on anyone’s dotted line.”

“And what about school?”

“Oh, Sarah dropped out to practice full-time, but she never told her parents. Maeve and I became English majors. We were always reading, anyway. Might as well get credit for it. School didn’t seem all that important anymore, but my folks were shelling out the money, so I kept at it. Good thing, too. By the time Brandon showed up, the band was self-destructing—the stress of almost getting contract after contract was tearing us apart, and we only had about six good months left in us.

“The end was spectacular, though. Sarah’s dad was a Miami probate attorney, a very stern and humorless man. Her parents came to a conference in New York and decided to visit her. Now, although she hadn’t told them about dropping out, she had told them something about the band, and I guess her dad saw a poster for a gig while they were trying to find Sarah on campus. They showed up at the club, which was bad enough. But that particular night we’d decided not to wear our usual sixties gear. We advertised the gig as a pajama party and wore baby-dolls. Instead of our usual tights, we painted big splashy daisies on our legs, like they used to do on Laugh In. You should have seen Sarah’s parents! Her dad tried to get on stage and pull her right off the drums, but the bouncers tossed him out. The next thing you know, Sarah’s on her way back to Miami. Last we heard she’d married a doctor.

“We tried auditioning other drummers, and almost everyone who showed up was a better drummer than Sarah. To be honest, Sarah had always been kind of the weak link, although none of us could play as well as we could sing and write. But without Sarah, the chemistry was gone. We ended up sniping at each other—no one could agree on anything. Pretty soon we weren’t really speaking to each other. You know—the standard story.

“Gretchen and Maggie started another band with their boyfriends. Maeve dropped out and got a gig singing torch songs in a piano bar. I hung out with Brandon and finished my degree and started writing about the Village scene for teen magazines. Just a fluke, really—met an editor for Ingenue at a party and left with an assignment. Then Brandon decided his career would blossom if only he could get to San Francisco, and off we went."

So... that's the fictional account of a band very much like the Poptarts. And just as a teaser for the real thing... we really did appear at a gig wearing baby doll pajamas (although I think we wore tights rather than painted our legs a la Laugh-In). We only did one other gig where we didn't wear minis, and that was at this gig in Cleveland where for some reason we wore leotards, tights, and hot-pants:

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Saturday, February 23, 2008

Here It Is!

This is what almost 400 pages looks like. And really, it may end up being more than 400, since this has kind of narrow margins, and I'll need to format it properly if I want to submit it to agents, etc. Also, I'm going to add a short, "hooky" prologue (or chapter 1, whatever I decide to call it) and pare back other bits here and there... but this is draft 1! I guess I should start working on honing it... I don't want to end up with a decade of resolution lists that start with "finish draft 2 of novel"!


Here It Is!

The new range!

Isn't it pretty?

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Ow! And Other Odds and Ends

My fingers hurt! Specifically, the fingers on my left hand. For the last few days, Jeff and I have resumed practicing a medley of three Irish tunes (two jigs and a slip jig)--he on mandolin and I on guitar. The thing is, I haven't played in ages, and the ponderous and ugly calluses of my misspent youth are long gone. I'm building them back up, though! Currently, I'm playing on a classical guitar with nylon strings. And that can be murder on novice (or begin-again) fingers. We're talking about getting a steel-string guitar like the one we bought Greg for Christmas--that was a sweet instrument. But even though I'll have calluses by the time we do so, it's always a pain in the fingers to shift string-types. We sound okay though! I tend to get lost, especially in the slip jig (Kid on the Mountain), but the timing is WONKY. Most of my rhythm guitar work has been 4/4. You know. Rock 'n' roll. I'll adjust, though. I'm more Irish than Jeff. It's in my blood! The auld sod!

In other news, we've both been fighting colds for the last week or so. I'm the culprit who brought it into the house, although I'll be damned if I know where I picked it up. Last Tuesday afternoon, I was enduring yet another conference call (probably the fifth or sixth of the day) when my nose started running. By the time I got home, I was in rhinovirus misery. I HATE getting a cold. To that end, I take lots and lots of vitamin C and swab the Zicam in my nostrils at the first sign of trouble. And so I have been blessed with o, about three or four cold-free years. Until now. It's not just the feeling crappy. It's the feeling betrayed. How dare I get a cold? Feh. The really acute stage only lasted for about two and a half days, with the damned thing blasting from head to chest in record time, but the fatigue and general wooziness has lingered... Maybe tomorrow I'll feel up to snuff again? Sigh.

And finally... We bought a new range. Our old one bit the dust a while ago (thank goodness we got that Advantium microwave hood when we did the reno... it is a conventional oven too (and a speed oven and a warming oven! I thought it was overkill at the time, but it sure has come in handy...), but it's either been too snowy or we've been too sick to go out and buy a new one. Well, we popped over the appliance emporium after work today and picked out a nice stainless steel number from GE. It's not one of those super high-end Wolfs or Vikings (they look so nice and, well, high-end!), but it does have cast iron burner grates and a self-cleaning oven and such. It set us back a bit more than we had planned to pay, but it seemed so much more substantial than the next model down... They are delivering it on Saturday. Now if we can hold off until next year to replace the fridge, we'll be doing okay! (But can I live with an ugly almond fridge with that nice stainless steel range residing just across the room? Hmmm....)

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Friday, February 08, 2008

All Mod Cons (The Jam)

In honor of my newly replenished iPod workout playlist (734 songs--only around 2 gigs so far and counting--as opposed to the 182 songs that used to fill it to capacity) here's a meme I pilfered from somewhere so long ago that I don't even recall where it came from. Yeah, it's kind of silly, but most memes are, aren't they? And some of the entries are rather spot on, if I do say so myself!


1. Put your iTunes, Windows Media Player, iPod etc. on shuffle.
2. For each question, press the next button to get your answer.

Crawling from the Wreckage (Dave Edmunds)

Twisted (Joni Mitchell) (!!!)

Words (The Poptarts)

Yea! Can you guess which of those lovely ladies of song is me? (Hint, you can look straight up my nose! Yikes!)

Shakin’ All Over (The Flamin’ Groovies)

Dancing in the Street (The Mamas and the Papas)

Won’t Get Fooled Again (The Who)

Glad All Over (Dave Clark Five)

My Little Angel (The Flashcubes)

High Fidelity (Elvis Costello)

10. WHAT IS 2 + 2?
I’ll Be Doggone (Marvin Gaye)

Shop Around (Smokey Robinson and the Miracles)

Carnival Time (Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias)

Leader of the Pack (The Shangri-Las) (I'll say! LOL!)

Play that Fast Thing (One More Time) Rockpile

15. WHAT DO YOU THINK WHEN YOU SEE THE PERSON YOU LIKE? (Isn't this really the same as #12?)
We’re Going to Be Friends (The White Stripes)

Don’t Panic (Coldplay) (!!!)

Fujiyama Mama (Wanda Jackson)

Back in My Arms Again (The Supremes)

If Not for You (George Harrison)

Get Rhythm (NRBQ)

Now press Next one more time and use it as your title.
(See title of this entry)

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Uh Oh. More Snow.

Oh, it's coming down, all right, although this picture is from Sunday night, when we got a quick layer of fluffy wet stuff that was pretty much gone by morning, but--as you can see--it piled up nicely on the wires outside our back windows. This round of snow was supposed to start overnight, with several inches on the ground by morning, but it was just starting to sleet as we headed out the door. We figured if it got too awful, they would close the building and send everyone home, but at least we would have put in an appearance. We got about halfway to work, though, and it had become so sloppy and slippery that we just turned around and headed home. And actually, they DID close the building at 1:00 this afternoon. I had plenty to work on, so I didn't have to stop to make a scary and no doubt lengthy drive home.

So far (fingers crossed) we haven't gotten anywhere near the foot of snow predicted. I just hope that holds.

Okay, here's an odd slice o' life that happened yesterday--it made me wonder if I had been transported from the cash register at Costco in Glenview to Torquay and the reception desk at Fawlty Towers. I dropped in to Costco to pick up some Rainbath, pine nuts, dried cherries, etc., and, as always, the checkout lines were long. I wheeled my cart to a spot behind a lady who looked to be in her 60s, but who knows these days? She had a package of blueberries in her hand and a case of bottled water in her cart.

I always leave a respectable amount of room between the end of my cart and the keister of the person in front of me... I don't like it when people bump me from behind, so I try not to do it to others. However, this dame just backed right up into my cart before I had a chance to move it. She whipped around and gave me the nastiest look, and I apologized, but she just kept glaring. Finally, she turned her attention forward again. Whew.

She put her blueberries on the conveyor belt and left her bottled water in her cart. As the berries moved toward the checker, I placed one of those separator bars on the belt and unloaded the few things from my cart.

Then the fun began.

The checker asked the lady if she only had the two things--the berries and the water.

"WHAT?" shouted the lady, in frustration and disgust.

The checker repeated her question.

"I CAN'T HEAR YOU!!" the lady shouted. "I'M DEAF!!!"

The checker pointed to the berries, and then to my items. "Only these? Or these too?"


The checker nodded, handed her the change from her order, and then started to ring up my purchase.


At this point, the person helping the checker wrangle the carts and purchases brought the cart with the water around, placed the blueberries in it, and guided the irate deaf lady toward the door. We could hear her voice ringing through the store as she headed for the exit, yelling about how she was deaf, not stupid.

Um... I dunno. I kind of beg to differ.

Takes all kinds, huh?

At least the checker took it all in stride and good humor. I'm afraid I would have gone all Basil Fawlty on her ass.

P.S.: By the way, I started this yesterday, but I couldn't get the picture to upload, so I wrote the bulk of it on 2/6, not 2/5. Just so the chronology makes sense...

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Sunday, February 03, 2008

A Winter Walk and Other Random Thoughts

This afternoon the temperatures climbed into the thirties (heat wave!), so Jeff and I decided to take a long walk up into Evanston to visit the comic book store (where I discovered in a book about the worst places to live in America that I had actually lived in TWO of them--Allston, MA, and Syracuse, NY) and to take in the Irish session at Nevin's Pub.

The lake was just beautiful. As you can see, it's been a cold winter so far. The shore has really iced up. The photo above is of our little neighborhood beach--the northernmost beach in Chicago.

Here's a view of the lake just about at the Evanston border:

Check out the "icebergs"!

One of the most interesting parts of the walk around the lakefront curve was realizing just how shallow the water has become. When we first moved to Rogers Park eight and a half years ago, the tops of the tallest of these pilings were mostly underwater.

The walk was invigorating, the temperature above freezing, and the sidewalks had been cleared (well, most of them), so we made pretty good time. Once we got to Nevin's though, we had worked up big appetites. Usually, we only opt for a couple of beers and maybe an order of chips and gravy or "harp strings" (fried onion tendrils) to split. Today, though, it was fish and chips for Jeff and bangers and mash for me. Except for the order included EIGHT bangers! Yikes! But you know, I was hungry. Weight Watchers be damned, I ate them all. I'll go back to counting points in the morning.

Alas, when we left Nevin's, the temperature had dropped considerably. At least, it felt like it had. We hoofed it home, though, making better time than we did on the way up to Evanston because we were just so daggone cold!

A nice way to spend a not-all-that-cold Sunday afternoon. Well, not all that cold for a while, at least.

Other random thoughts:

Last night we finished watching The Cranes Are Flying, the fifties Soviet classic about love torn asunder by World War II. I first saw this movie YEARS ago, when I was a college freshman studying Russian. The professor brought this film and several others (Ivan the Terrible, anyone?) to class for us to watch. I remember loving the movie and crying my eyes out. It was a ten-tissue tearjerker, and no mistake. I have owned the Criterion Collection DVD for a couple of years now, but we just never got around to watching it until this weekend. What a wonderful film. It still holds up, after all these years. I cried my eyes out. But the most fascinating thing about the film is the glimpse it gives into Soviet life during the war--the terrible sacrifices, the horrific losses. We pride ourselves on having won that war, but without the involvement of the Soviet Union, Allied victory would have been impossible. Anyway... check it out if you get the chance.

I have a new printer!! My old one died a couple of weeks ago, so I purchased a new one that scans and copies as well. The first thing I printed? The first 100 pages of the novel so that Jeff could start reading and commenting. He gets first dibs! Scary, though.

It's snowing again, although "they" claim it will turn to rain by morning. I am tired of snow. But the idea of rain ON snow. Ugh.

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Friday, February 01, 2008

Snow Day!

We've been pretty lucky in Chicagoland this winter--true, we've had some brutally cold temperatures and quite a few light snowstorms, but in general we have been spared a big dumping-on of the white stuff. Well, until yesterday.

We knew that the storm was coming. Anyone who was paying attention could see the heavy white band on the Doppler radar--shown on every local news program Thursday morning--marching north across the plains from Oklahoma. A whopper. They said it would start snowing about three or so and really kick in for the rush hour. Har! It started at about ten a.m., and by three the storm was well underway. We managed to get on the road by four, and it took us about an hour and a half to travel the eleven miles from work to home.

This morning, we woke up to this:

No way are they going to open the office, we thought to ourselves, and we waited for the call from the department phone tree. But no--the company NEVER closes. The building could be buried in snow and they would still be open for business. Still, the radio newsfolk were warning of dire consequences for anyone who tried to drive in the storm, which was still blowing lots of white stuff up the street. Given drive times, we would just about have to turn around and go home by the time we made it into the office.

So calls were made.

We were given dispensation to work from home. And we, in turn, gave our reports dispensation to work from home. So, it was a snow day, but a working one.

I'm not sure how much snow we actually got--the prediction was for 6 to 12 inches, and some locales had 9 inches at about seven this morning, but this is what had accumulated on the balustrade outside our sunroom windows as of late this afternoon:

Well, it wasn't like the snow days of old, when we would bundle up and grab a sled or a saucer and head for the hills, but it was a nice day to stay inside, avoid the slick roads and the cold, and catch up on work without the constant interruptions of meetings and ubiquitous crises.

What would have made it perfect?

Sidewalks that shoveled themselves.

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