Saturday, November 24, 2007

F*CK Brandi Carlile, or Face Down like Janis

A buddy of mine- a first rate singer songwriter who has successfully toured for years and has released several critically acclaimed albums was telling me, on her last visit to out fair Pennsyltucky town, that our local Triple A station, in fact a public station, just would not get behind her latest album, though similar stations across the land had picked it up.

I snorted, because like most local musician I am well aware of this station's peculiarities in choosing records to play. They're a public station, usually a good venue for local performers to get some airplay. Not here- they claim they're programming is strictly controlled... blah blah. They're allegedly a Triple A station, but I've tuned in a couple of times to hear the most un-adult acoustic stuff imaginable... Iggy Pop's Lust for Life, Steely Dan's Josie, Spearhead's Hole in the Bucket- great stuff, all of it, but not Triple A. They're playing it during the real jock's shifts, too, not the wacky volunteer weekend shifts. So god only knows what their mysterious playlist 'criteria' is. Meanwhile, they inexplicably pass on all kinds of good Triple A records. To try and explain this to my buddy, I used the example of the first Brandi Carlile record. When that originally came out a couple of years ago, it came out on RED, the 'indi' arm of Sony. It's kind of like the minor leagues- they put you there to see if you'll perform in the 'bigs.' Anyhow, I was working for a record distributor at the time, doing marketing, the record had just come out and BC was going to be performing in town. The label had some money they wanted me to spend at local radio to help promote the record and the show. I listened to the record. There was no doubt it was a stone cold fucking smash, none- right? Usually I had to listen to and help promote stuff I couldn't let play longer that 4 minutes, so this was fun. I emailed the MD at our little Triple A station. The answer I got back was just ridiculous. They were just going to have to pass. WXXX, on the other side of PA, had picked up that record for airplay, so they were going to pass on it. Yeah, they were passing on it because a station 400 miles away had picked it up. That's a sound decision. And you know what? Don't think for a minute that this type of vague, weird shit is limited to one station in a backwards town. The music industry is riddled with that kind of backwards ass thinking- whole label rosters come and go, informed by nothing more than the peccadilloes of some wonk that hasn't seen daylight since Kajagoogoo made him gag and he vowed to dedicate his life to exterminating synth pop. Forget what people like to listen to, he's on a mission. The other side of the coin is the big suits with expensive shoes- don't think for a second that these fucks are doing anything but moving product- and that product ain't really music. It's wallpaper.whatever. The bigs spend huge amounts of money placing product on the racks, on the air, on the tube, in your line of sight, and what you think you 'found' on your own was deliberately placed in your way, and it was placed there at the expense of something else. Let me give you an example- when the last Britney Spears album came out - not this new child custody one, her label spent in excess of 16,000 dollars with the company I worked for, buying advertising, giving price incentives and purchasing 'rack space.' In the grand scheme of things, we were just one medium sized distribution company. There are half a dozen or more companies in the US that do what we do - sell music to independent chains and mom & pop stores. So, multiply that dollar amount by 6- that's 96,000 dollars on one release in one tiny segment of the the music business infrastructure. Glossy publication ads in National Magazine? A review blurb on Amazon? Rack space and Ads in the BigBox Stores and Huge Music chains? That shit is all paid for. Hundreds and Hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent essentially 'making' something a hit. And let me tell you, it's no different with the indi labels, they just have less money to spend and maybe really like music. And it means that even the most talented musician faces a total crap shoot in earning a living, even at the so called 'indi' level.

And that's why my buddy sputtered "FUCK BRANDI CARLILE" when I started to tell my "we're gonna have to take a pass on that record' story, her reaction raises a whole different set issues.

I'll be honest, I'd fuck her in a heartbeat. I mean, have you seen the kid? She is the total package- the music's good, the voice breaks your heart, she's enough of a knockout that I feel like a bitter old perv every time I see the album cover. However, she poses a problem to a lot of us oldsters in the singer-songwriter game. Yes, she's gifted, she works hard, and she's a genuine person. The records are highly listenable. But she's also easy on the eyes, has had a lot of help, both creative and administrative, and she just plain got lucky- she showed up at a point in history that was made possible by 40 years of other women laboring in relative obscurity. And by lucky, I include the fact that she was raised in some mountain cabin with nothing but a victrola and some old Carter Family records and NO MTV. She rolled down from the mountain with none of the video-era induced 'lifestyle/product/fashion' trauma that's caused so many of us to doubt ourselves, waste time redefining our images, or generally feel inferior. So, her success could feel like a slap in the face for woman working in the same vein that's been out there slogging it out for 10, 15 , 20 years. It's a particularly bitter pill for women musicians to swallow- not BC herself, but the general phenomenon of the mighty machine picking just one woman for artistic relevance every decade.

In my recollection, the first big explosion of chick singer songwriters, in the late 80's, went something like this: "Your record's great, but radio won't/can't play it because they're already playing the Suzanne Vega record." Like, Shawn fucking Colvin was shopping demos that year and heard this crap, right? One of the premiere songwriters of the last 20 years, and she had to swallow this Luka shit. Have you heard "Steady On?" It's a masterwork. "Luka" beat that? It's simply unconscionable. A lot of women's careers were foundered because of fucking "Luka", and let's face it, 20 years later, can you even listen to that song? Don't lie. You can't. The next wave- Tracey Chapman- 'Fast Car', sure they played the hell out of it, but ignored even better songs from that album and subsequent albums, because all anyone wanted from the black chick was that 'slice of life' view from the black underclass so they could say that they 'got it, they really got it.' Melissa Etheridge? ('Melissa Estrus' as one of my rural record store owners consistently and perfectly mangled her name....) Don't even get me started. The first album had some songwriting promise on it, but then she clearly signed off on the "Big Plan" from the record label: "you are the inheritor of Joplin's mantle, but you are happy playing along with the boys, not tortured by your lack of creative control and sexual confusion, you are also a lot like Bruce Springsteen, you will be growing your hair and having dermabrasion and you will name check as many products as possible on the next album." She was as fucking processed as velveeta, but not as tangy.

Then came the huge epistemological problem that was The Indigo Girls. The same surge in College rock power that catapulted R.E.M. and 10,000 maniacs and fucking Luka into ubiquity created just enough of an anti-gravity chamber to let these two into the a major label contract. They totally slipped under the fence, and no one made them clean up or change their clothes. The sound was fresh enough, they were hip enough looking to get a shot at initial airplay on MTV and college radio- the difference is they had the material and the work ethic to stick around and develop a live following (and not just the lesbians- they're musical appeal is pretty wide, go to a show, there's a lot of walks of life there) and keep vibrant for a long time. In some ways, their longevity echoes that of the Grateful Dead- who also got very little airplay but connected with a huge amount of people and happily made music that they loved for a lot of years.

However- back to the 'problem:' At no point on 50 years of rock and roll had there been a successful female creative duo. You had Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, CSN, whatever- name two other chicks (who weren't raised from birth to work as a team, like the Wilson Sisters,) who negotiated a productive creative relationship. NONE. Suzy Quattro rocked alone, Joan Jett too. No one expected creativity from the Disco chics. The Runaways were really just some puppet show put on by a pedophile, other than Jett, no one really made it out alive, or maybe was even alive to start out with.

Women's place in rock music had always been tolerated because either they were

1) the chirp - as Joni Mitchel so elegantly put it on Miles of Aisles, just frontin' the band.

2) Unique enough to be respected and granted special dispensation to be in charge of their shit - Joni Mitchell, maybe Carole King, after she karate chopped her way through the Brill Building.

2b) Unique but viciously attacked for taking artistic risks and stumbling, disposable freak show: Essra Mowhawk, Laura Nyro, Grace Jones, Jane Childs, Toni Childs, Sinead O'Connor, Joni Mitchell every other album, Linda Perry prior to becomng Uber pop producer, Cyndi Lauper,

3) the tortured and then dead artist- Joplin was way more successful as a corpse than as a living, breathing, smelly, unattractive blues singer.

4) a gig bag - somebody's girlfriend- Again, Joni's an interesting exception that proves that rule, since Graham Nash was sort of her gig bag, talentless barnacle that he was.

6) man clone/one of the boys.... Melissa Estrus, Bonnie Raitt in the 70's/80's, Joan Jett,

5) puppet - I'm not even going to bother naming names
and no matter how you cut it- all of those roles serve to inhibit and diminish the idea of women themselves as strong creators. Culturally, if the 'idea' doesn't exist in theory, no one will aspire to it.

Now here come the Indigo Girls. Two singer songwriters with unique individual styles, working together (which you know from all of the mainstream rock media - ahem, lester bangs, that that's just not possible, the implosion of the Runaways, that just can't happen) and basically gigging themselves into the consciousness of music listeners. (and this was before the much vaunted Ani Difrano DIY juggernaut that made us all feel like losers because we couldn't do it all like she did -we paled in comparison to AD)

They worked together writing and arranging, they worked together gigging and networking, and they generally just fucking worked- which, correct me if I'm wrong, please, but you never saw that in rock music before, not the collaboration, not the work ethic from chicks, and not the just humbly getting it done. Sure Joni Mitchell worked her ass off, but she never collaborated with another woman, and she'd be the first person to tell you she's been cut throat in taking advantage of the few opportunities presented her. Sure the Wilson sisters collaborated, and don't get me wrong, I love Heart like I love chocolate, and I denied this for years but my ears don't lie- they rode the backs of their male bandmates to kick out the jams - if you don't believe me- take a look at what happened when the Fisher Brothers left the operation. Yeah, What about Love? my ass, it ain't no Crazy on You, and I can't even come up with an explanation for the Quasi-Broadway musical that was Private Audition. That don't mean I don't like, but it ain't rock and roll.

So here's IG, working their asses off, not trying to be anything they aren't, and not acquiescing to any weird label imperatives - now remember, they would have been signing with Epic at around the same time that ME was signing with Island, and somehow no one sat them down and insisted on high hair and tight jeans) and succeeding. They didn't get any prettier, thinner, smoother skinned or suave. I'm not saying they didn't feel the same pressure, I'm just saying they didn't do it. I've been at shows where Amy Ray, god bless her, looks like she just rolled out of bed and maybe needs a shower. In other words, they just rocked on like a rock band- not a girl rock band.

Very few artists anymore get the chance to keep working as they see fit for 20 years, and even fewer were women. Think of another band from the late 80's college rock or indi scene that's still viable. I can't. But their continued existence opened up a whole new mental channel for musicians younger than them: women as collaborators. Not just collaborators with each other, but with men too. Women as strong creators capable of equal artistic partnership.

This, in conjunction with with the social changes brought on by the internet for youngsters (See "we are everywhere, virtually) brought about Brandi Carlisle.
We say "fuck brandi carlile" but what we really mean is "fuck time, and fuck my luck." It's not magic that she has, it's extra energy from not having to second guess herself about everything from the music she listens to, whether or not she can jam with the boys, not having to fight for space on the bill, not having to stress about sexual orientation (I know she's huge with the the lesbians, but I'm not sure she's a lesbian, I'd wager she is, but it just doesn't matter - it wasn't an impediment in her personal development or in her career development.) The only difference between BC and my buddy is that for BC, there's a very clear spot for her to plug into the culture, and it's a spot that simply wasn't there before. I'm not saying that sexism, homophobia, whatever, has vanished, but I am saying that I believe it's sphere of influence has shrunken dramatically.

And time and luck wise, she's dealing with younger, better dudes- they are more enlightened. Those twin boys she pals around with- they write half of the material and don't mind simply beng the un-named backing band. Ten, even five years ago, you never would have seen some boy show so little ego in supporting a girl artist. That's because it wasn't just the girls who grew up with this new ideal of women as legitimate partners for collaboration, it was the boys too. This generation of boys grew up with real women rockers as touchpoints.

I grew up barely being allowed to mention that I had a guitar in front of the of the boys- I was in a couple bands in highschool but always as the singer - never a guitarist- even though my voice hadn't changed yet and I was a much better guitarist than singer at that point in my life. I can't improvise for shit because there wasn't an safe place to learn how- the boys wouldn't play with me without mocking not just my playing, but my very desire to play- I was a girl!!!! I was 30 years old before I finally broke through the fear of performing that that created, and I know it wasn't just me that happened to. Janis Joplin's band was full of terrible fuckwad musicians, but no one else would play for her, and even these suckbags wouldn't take direction from her cause she was a chick. BC hasn't had to deal with that, so she gets the benefit of collaboration- most of us are better when an outside influence tempers our work. The genius of the Beatles and the Stones and the Who and most other paragons of rock authorship was collaboration. The whole was better than the sum of it's parts. They were better because Paul pulled John out of his own head, and Jagger could interpret Keith's monosyllables into something the rest of the band could follow, and Daltry reigned Pete and his 72 minute long rhapsody about the beauty of a single note in by simply saying "that's great, man, but how will it help anyone get laid?"

Generations of rockers grew up under that male dominated sky, and really only one generation of singer-songwriters (so far) has matured into touring age under the new regime, and little BC is the result. So yeah, we say $%*^$ Brandi Carlile, but at the same time, I can't help but be a little proud that she exists, because really, she serves to prove the theory that all the women who came before her proposed: woman are equally strong creators and rockers, work with us and good things will happen.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Of Jedi Knights and Mix Tapes

For a lot of people my age, mostly the boys, childhood was clearly divided. There was a Before and there was an After. When you saw Star Wars for the first time, you came out of the theater in a dreamy state, knowing that the world had changed, and feeling like you were a part of something larger than yourself. I had that same experience as a 17 year old, the first time I heard an Indigo Girls bootleg.

The one family vacation we ever took was in 1983. My sister had had a baby down in South Carolina, and on the drive back to PA we stopped at some family style restaurant in VA. I went to the restroom, and as I was walking through the dining area, I caught sight of myself in one of those big room length mirrors. It was totally disorienting because I was going the wrong way in the mirror. I was going the wrong way in the mirror because it wasn’t me. It was some other girl that was my dead ringer. Back in the car, my mother explained what a ‘doppleganger’ was, but that didn’t make the experience any less disconcerting. Hearing Amy Ray was disorienting in the same way- ‘what am I doing over there?‘

Now you think back- whether or not you like 'em, when you were a young lesbian, something clicked when you first heard the Indigo Girls in the late 80's. Something changed for you.

When I heard my first Indigo Girls track in 1988, it was the same kind of 'time standing still' moment that I had when I saw Star Wars in the theater. Now, keep in mind that this was before the rivers of information were brought to us by the internet. Things you really liked were hard to come by. In sleepy backward towns, even the most aggressive seekers had to rely on the record store clerk, mainstream radio and the card catalogue at the library.

I was lucky enough to have the complete radio station record library at my disposal, but who the hell knew what to listen to? The school had given up on the station years ago. The priest that ran it got disgusted with the students and gave the broadcast license and tower away to a neighboring school. We broadcast solely through the electrical wiring of the freshman dorms. No shit. That being the case, no one bothered with us. I never once saw a faculty member at the studio. I was willfully obscene every time I took the air, no one noticed. I once played Bruce Cockburn’s “Silver Wheels” back to back for three straight hours on my own "Organic Music Show." No one noticed.

The down side to this was that we were left out of the grand accumulation of power that College Radio went through in the mid to late eighties. The AP didn’t care what we played. CMJ didn’t call for our tracking numbers. No cool indi labels sent us promo copies. Everything was mainly major label top 40 stuff, still white label, still 12”vinyl singles, so the stuff we did get was largely anonymous. If it was a new artist, who knew what it was? Name and title only on the white labels. It could be R&B, it could be bluegrass. Who knew? Our entire Replacements catalogue was cassette tapes bootlegged off of a local townie drop out.

Another problem was: vinyl. Shit was still not portable. I spent a solid week before leaving for college transferring vital records to cassette tapes. You couldn’t take your stereo to school, no one did- they were still the size of foot lockers. The boys brought boomboxes, but most of the girls in my dorm had a clock radio, period. My cd player was still regarded as a novelty. Those of us that liked music too much traded carefully constructed mix tapes with each other and with friends from other schools. That’s how you found out about new music, and that’s how I, with the contrariness that’s been a theme throughout my life, met the Indigo Girls in a freshman boy’s dorm at an obscure Catholic College. A mixtape had arrived, I don’t know from where, other than it must have been from a bigger, cooler school.

This school, you know, well there was a joke at the radio station that every Freshman Orientation Kit contained a copy of Steve Miller's Greatest Hits V2 and whichever Billy Joel album that was that had Scenes from an Italian Restaurant on it, because that’s all you heard in the freshman quad. R.E.M. hadn’t reached the working class East Coast neighborhoods we came from. I was friendly with the kids that liked the Smiths and the Cure in highschool, but the music didn’t speak to me, so other than hard rock and 70’s albums that my sister left behind, my 'palette' was limited, to say the least.

Bill (damn me if I can remember his whole name, but it was Irish, we were almost all Irish.) and I had jammed some that fall, learned a couple of songs together, but it was hard. He played keyboards and was keyboard oriented, and since I was a girl in high school, there wasn’t anyone for me to jam with and I just didn’t know how. But we could listen together.

The anonymous mixtape maker had tacked what our AOR ears heard as ‘country’ on the end of the tape… two completely out of control acoustic guitars and a low, rough voiced girl.

"Is this you?” Bill squealed, like maybe I had recorded an album secretly over the summer but decided to start college anyways….

I don’t know what he thought, really, and I was too stunned, too Star Warsed to do anything but grab the j card to see what was written on it. It was unlike anything I’d heard before. I knew it was powerful, but I didn’t know if I liked it, and I sure as hell wasn’t thrilled that anyone might sound like me. Vocally, she had a lot more control and a lot more ability to project, so it was totally a compliment that Bill thought my voice sounded like her. The guitar, though, that was the kicker- if I hadn’t known it definitely wasn’t me, I would have thought it was me. Loud, hard, fast… the kind of strumming that wore holes in guitars. The way girls play who know they have to play acoustic 'cause they're a girl', but in their mind they are a Thundering God of Rock.

At that time, in 1988, our guitar styles were both heavy handed, fast and more focused on percussion than finesse- we both were just banging away and yelling, tearing through the song hoping that if we sang loud enough no one would notice we weren’t really playing the guitar.

I knew in my gut that we were both hanging onto our guitars like brick walls we were wanted to climb, using every muscle in our body, struggling to pull ourselves up, exhausting ourselves just trying to keep up and get over. I know she’s a better player now, and I think I am too, but in that moment in 1988, that moment of recognition changed my life in a lot of ways-

1) I wasn’t alone, there was another girl guitarist out there scraping the top off of her guitar, not lady-like-at-all. And she hollered like I did. My mom called mine ‘caterwauling.’

2) I might now sound like a copy cat. That was bad.

3) I wasn’t alone, and they weren’t that much better than me, but they were miles ahead-they had recorded something. You could tell from the vocals that they weren’t that much older than me. There was a whole new ball game to get in on.

4) We both sounded like we were taking buzz saws to our guitars, hers sounded good, so mine might sound good too. That was good.

5) If they were country, that means I was country too, and that was bad. (This was the indie release version of Land of Canaan…. It was a while before the Indigo Girls album was released nationally by Epic, promptly relieving my worries by turning up in the ‘college rock’ bin. Alternative hadn’t been invented yet, and definitely not Alt Country. Whew, I wasn’t country.)

I’m not a competitive person. In sports, I’m coordinated and I have a natural athleticism, but no killer instinct. I’m just having fun, I hit the ball because I like the sound it makes. I have a high IQ, in school, I sporadically did well, I mainly intuit stuff, if interested, I actually learn. It never bothered me when less talented kids did better. I never cared to be the best. I do my thing, that’s all I care about.

I heard these girls for the first time, and suddenly, I want to be the best at something. I feel threatened. Amy Ray sounds like a better version of me. I want to be the best version, I’m me after all, I should get to be the best at it. AND I’m NOT. She is BETTER AT BEING ME THAN I AM. I simultaneously hate her, yet am totally mesmerized. Jealousy, and awe combined with the new realization that there might be a place for me in the scene, changed singing and songwriting for me. With that one random turn of the tape, (and what turns aren't random at that age?) what was once simple therapy for an odd, lonely girl became the main metric against which I judged myself in the two decades since.

Amy Ray Kenobi, the Jedi need your help.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The odd, poetic moment

in response to hearing that I am 'smooth'

If I am smooth It is the smoothness of a river rock
Or a pocket-worn coin I wasn’t made that way:
I came into this world all hard angles, bounce and static-
The lone receiver of a longing filled broadcast
That could only be my ancestors,
Desperate to defend the choices they once made.

In 19aught what?
my Grand Uncle Walter
was the first man to ride a bicycle down Pike’s Peak
-before it was paved or graded-why he did it I do not know
The song writer thinks that it was to show that
When our days are done no stone will be rough - no path unpaved
but the householder knows:
his brain was starved in the high altitude.

Your hands are not smooth
They are calloused from the
Grasping and hefting and testing of
Your own river’s bed of rocks
Still, the very work that roughens those hands
Washes them so clean.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Cleaning out my closet with Erik Estrada, or "Grand Funk Show and Tell"

I didn't realize until after it was done that I had managed to clean my closet out on National Coming Out day. I think I'll make it my new habit.

This was actually in honor of my latest breakup. I have a lot more space, not just cause she moved out, but because I managed to purge a lot of things while she was here. She hated clutter, and I thought that since it looked like things were finally ok, it was maybe ok to start letting go of some things. She didn't stick around, but the new habit of letting stuff go did stick.

In retrospect, I would have held on to the 1000+ classic Northern Soul 45's had I known she would stay for less than a year, but I digress....

Anyhow, I just counted 9 pairs of absolutely identical khaki cargo shorts. I had dozens of band and tour shirts, thousands of white tube socks, and a lot of other repetitive wardrobe items. I buy the same items compulsively, like I’m afraid they’ll stop making cotton socks or something. I don’t know why. Oh, I do know why, but I don’t know why I can’t stop. No wait, I know why I can't stop.

The perfect moment. Change is bad. Everything good is in short supply and the things you love disappear. Stock up while supplies last.

After cleaning out the closet, I went shopping. So now, I am wearing brand new olive green cargo pants and a grey zip up hoodie instead of the ragged ones I just threw out. Today isn't even the day that I realized I've been wearing this basic outfit for 30 years. About five years ago, when cargo pants came back into fashion (well, you know what I mean) I found myself running around Pittsburgh playing phone tag with my friend Diana. While retrieving my cell phone from my leg pocket I was vividly thrown back in memory to a day spent riding my gold Schwinn Stingray (with the sissy bar and banana seat) around the neighborhood, with a walkie-talkie in my leg pocket, playing CHiPs with my cousin Johnny. Not the Cousin Johnny that caught 18 crawfish for me, but the other Cousin Johnny. What was I wearing on top that Autumn day? You guessed it: a grey zip up hoodie.

The reason that memory sticks is this: the walkie-talkies were another completely unsolicited Christmas present. My mother ordered them from a catalogue- she was rabid for mail order. If she had lived into the internet age, or even in the home shopping network era I shudder to think what might have happened- there would have been a trebuchet in the backyard.

I'm not talking the SEARS catalogue, either, my friends. She was on mailing lists for educational and experimental egg head toy manufacturers from around the globe. The pure possibility found inside those pages called to her inner Svengali. She was going to find the toy that would inspire my adult greatness. As a result, I never got anything that I asked for, but I did get a range of exotic and frankly very dangerous 'toys.' She was always embarassed that I wasn't very lady like, but she gave me crewcuts and bought me 'toys' that could have been used for Navy Seal training. I was doomed from the start, right? Examples:

Asked for matchbox cars and track to race them on- got drafting kit- a real one with lots of sharp things.

Asked for the little bleep bleep electronic football game every one had- got set of oil paints and easel.

Asked for Rubik's cube- got wood carving kit complete with very sharp chisels, a mallet and x-acto blades.

Asked for Crayola Markers - got mini printing press, complete with type blocks.

Other 'interesting gifts included: Stilts. Real ones. Pogo stick, "Medical Kit" This included a real microscope, slides, chemicals, a variety of animals preserved in formaldehyde, and a dissection kits with real scalpels and a BUNSEN BURNER. Again, very sharp things. I was under ten. This woman was afraid to drive over bridges and wouldn't let me ride roller coasters.

With the exception of my guitar there was never anything I could take to show and tell, and for some reason, none of the other kids thought it was cool that I could play the riff from Grand Funk's "Closer to Home", even though I thoughtfully brought along the record so they could hear both versions and see the fascinating cover art with the moving eyeballs. Mrs. Bannon, my second grade teacher, now treated me with even more suspicion. I had, not long before my 'show and tell guitar god' debut, come to school with one of my big sister's roach clips, thinking only that the feathery thing was a neat sort of hair thingy that the girls who had long hair would think was cool. Now I had brought the devil's music into her classroom. Clearly, I would be firing up giant spliff during kickball if she didn't keep an eye on me. That was the year I threw up every morning before school. It was also the year I started listening too my big sister's abandoned record collection like she had left them behind to throw me a ifeline, to comminucate some sort of secret message to me. Kids never wanted to play with me or my toys. I had no friends at school (gradeschoolers that talk like Bette Davis and listen to boogie rock have a hard time with their peers) and there was nothing but old people in my neighborhood. I was a weird, lonely kid.

So, that's why in addition to being totally unsolicited, the walkie-talkies were, not cruel, but definitely a thoughtless gift. I had no one to use them with. I had no one to play with, my little sister was 3, my next oldest sister was 19. As imaginative as I was, I could find nothing to use them for until the day Cousin Johnny was there and we tore around the neighborhood playing "CHiPs" on our bad-ass Schwinn Stingrays in our matching cargo pants with the walkie-talkies stuffed in them. It was a good day for me, and I've been dressing for a repeat ever since. You be Ponch, I'll be John.