Our family moved from Connecticut to New York in the fall of 1983, from a rural, leafy house on a hill to a rural, leafy house on a hill—surrounded by a swamp and an impound lot. The second half of seventh grade pretty much sucked; I was in yet another new school surrounded by people who’d grown up around each other, and I was odd man out, again. I went into eighth grade with nobody I knew around me, and basically stuck it out for the entire year by myself. It wasn’t until I made it into ninth grade that I made friends with anyone I liked—and that had everything to do with music.
One of my best friends was a guy with an unusual name, and he was into most of the same things I was—comics, playing bass, Van Halen/Rush, crappy 80’s apocalypse movies, and shitty cars. His family was large and loud and lived right above town, much closer to everything than we did, and his house became the epicenter of all of my activities—mostly because we lived 10 miles outside of town and this was before I had a driver’s license. His mom and ad were kind and generous and larger than life; one of the first times I visited his house, I called home for a ride and for some reason both my parents couldn’t make it. I squared up my courage and asked his dad, a 6-foot wide Polish fireplug, if he could drive me home. He looked me up and down, and told me to go out on the deck, face my house, and bend over, and he’d kick my ass home. He waited a beat, watched me shit my pants, and then smirked through his huge mustache before pointing at his service truck. His Mom was a tireless booster for all four of her kids—from band to gymnastics to horses to wrestling, she was there on the bus, at the events, making sure they—we—all had what we needed, whether it was food or equipment or support or a clear spot on the floor to sleep.
They took me in when I needed a place to crash before a marching band event, or a party, or just on the odd Friday night after school when we were hanging around. I spent nights on S’s floor pretzeled into an uncomfortable set of cushions, happy that I wasn’t stuck at my house miles away from the fun stuff. S. and I spent countless hours together, and he was the guy who got me back out of the introverted shell I’d been building since Connecticut. His friends were my friends, and I was lucky enough to fit in with them all, and it was the best thing that could have happened to me.
I found out years ago (back when I was on Facebook, I think) that his Mom had beaten breast cancer. I don’t visit there for obvious reasons, and I’m epically terrible at staying in touch with anyone. But she’s been on my mind over the last couple of months, on and off; I’ve also been mulling a drive up to Putnam County to say hi to a bunch of old friends. It was a gut punch a few weeks ago to find out she had passed from a second bout of cancer. My immediate thought was that I needed to go up and pay my respects to his family in person, to somehow show how much they’d meant to me. With COVID lockdowns in full effect, that wasn’t going to happen.
Fast forward to the beginning of last week, when I got a DM on Instagram from S., who was going to be in town for his daughter’s lacrosse clinic. Would I like to get together? Damn right I would. I picked him up about a mile down the street at the indoor facility where Finn learned to play soccer and drove him out into Ellicott City to the brewery on Main Street. He hasn’t aged at all, and we quickly caught up on the years that have gone by. We had about three hours to shoot the shit, and it felt good to catch up with him and his family.
Clearly, I’ve got to get off my ass and reach out to friends and catch up and see how they’re doing, now more than ever.
Shit. Eddie Van Halen is dead of cancer at 65. I’d say “fuck cancer” here but the guy had a smoking habit that should have killed him 20 years ago, and that’s after he kicked a titanic coke habit. Still, a peerless musician, and from the sounds of it, a peerless asshole. I’ve written often about my love for this band; this is another sign that 2020 is the shit year of shit years.
This post is one in a series based on a format at another website; much like music, I can measure much of my adult life with the cars I’ve driven.
Driving to the store the other day with Finn in the rocket seat, I was flipping through radio stations until I happened upon “Summer Nights” by Van Halen. Say what you will about this particular 80s prom anthem, but it takes me back to a particular summer spent in the driveway of my parents’ house, grinding the dents out of a faded Volkswagen bus. There are some lessons it’s taken multiple failures for me to learn: Don’t date crazy chicks, don’t leave the toilet seat up in a house full of women, Don’t do work on spec or without a deposit, don’t do shots of tequila under any circumstances, and don’t buy a 20-year-old vehicle without knowing what you’re getting yourself into. This was the first time the Sky Pilot tried to drill that last lesson into my head.
Let me set this up: My Dad, in a kind gesture (no doubt brought on by fatigue related to driving me all over creation), bought me a used blue Datsun 240 at auction somewhere around my 15th birthday. For long months it sat in the garage waiting for me to gather the funds and knowledge to get it running. I should interject here–buying cars for our family was not a big deal, because my Dad owned a repossession agency and auctioned cars all the time. We weren’t swimming in money, but good deals came up every once in a while, and a ragged out 15-year-old sportscar wasn’t worth much to the bank by then. The 240 was pretty cool for a first car; it was low, it wore fat racing slicks on slotted mags, and it had an aftermarket sunroof. As it sat, it would have been the envy of a certain segment of my high school. Because I was as strange then as I am now, I knew it wasn’t the car for me.
By then, I had my eye on an orange whale sitting inside the chainlink fence of the impound lot. It was a 1973 VW T2 camper van sitting on four bald tires. The headlights had been punched in by a front end collision at some point (insert foreshadowing music here). The paint was faded, but there was no evident rust. The engine took several liberal stomps of the gas to wake and missed on one cylinder. The interior stank of mildew and German upholstery. It was an early-70’s European living room on wheels with a built in wet bar; I was in love.
For the kingly sum of $400, it was mine. I think my Dad was disappointed I wasn’t interested in his gift Datsun, but the pro/con matrix I drew on a sheet of tabloid paper for my parents spelled out my intentions: The sports car was impractical, a cop magnet, and dangerous. The bus was spacious, thrifty on gas, and wouldn’t make it over 70MPH on a downhill slope. Plus, I had private visions of camping trips with friends, out-of-state road trips, and eventually packing it with all of my junk for a trip to college. I’m sure, in hindsight, it would have been a magnet for the crusty patchouli-stinking trustafarians at art school, even if I looked like I stepped out of a J.Crew catalog.
So, I spent the spring of 1988 with an angle grinder in my hand, smoothing out high spots around the headlight buckets. It was my first experience with a slaphammer, bondo, wet/dry sandpaper, and auto primer. It went pretty well, too; I’d say it was about a 10-footer when I was done. My Dad noticed how much time I was putting in on the body, had his body guy respray it in VW orange, and it looked much more presentable even if the patina I liked was gone. Meanwhile, a visit to the mechanic, a rebuilt carb, and several Benjamins had the 4-banger running smoothly.
It was a stick, and it featured the longest gear lever I’ve ever thrown. Because the shift linkage traveled all the way to the back, it took a while to master the spongy feel of the gears compared to the tight Japanese econoboxes I’d learned on. Plus, VW’s odd placement of reverse (mush down and to the left) made parking a challenge. The engine put out more power than I thought it would, though, and I could actually chirp the tires—not that I tried.
After it came back from the shop, I unbolted everything above the roofline and spread it out on the lawn. I used a bucket of laundry detergent and several stiff brushes to scrub the grime out of the fabric and off the fiberglass while the upholstery inside ran through the washer. When it all went back together, the bus stank of cleaner until the day I sold it. To this day the smell of Simple Green puts me back behind the huge wheel of that puttering beauty.
That summer, I played OU812 through my aftermarket Blaupunkt tape deck endlessly while I drove to marching band practice, to and from my friends houses, and later to high school, where I definitely had the most unusual ride in the parking lot. I even found a cooler place to sleep than my un-air conditioned sweatbox of a bedroom: I popped the top down in the driveway, opened the hammock, and slept outdoors until the weather got too cold. I drove it through the fall, when my Mom got on my Dad about the tires, so we sprung for four new all-weather radials and he had them mounted with the white side out, to my dismay.
I had my misadventures with her as time went by; working on the engine was a back-breaking experience due to its location and the non-ergonomic location of the rear hatch. I learned how to kick-start a manual when I had some problems with the battery and a bad ground. Changing plugs wasn’t as easy as it looked on my Dad’s F350, which had an engine bay the size of a dumpster. I found out the hard way about cross-threading spark plugs in an aluminum block when I blew one out of the socket hard enough to drive it into the overhead access hatch. I nursed it home on three cylinders and explained the problem to my Dad, and he had his mechanic repair it with a helicoil.
She met her final day head-on, like a proper German. Driving a friend home from school, I crested a hill at about 35mph. There was no time to brake for the Sentra which pulled into the intersection without looking. Its bumper rode up mine and pushed the sheet metal into the cabin until it was about 6″ from my passenger’s knees; I bounced off the dashboard and steering column and stalled the engine, surprised at how fast everything had happened. I checked on Sue, who was white as a sheet but OK, then got out and checked on the other driver, a shaken middle-aged woman. After the cops showed up and took the report, Sue’s parents came and got her (this happened only 1/4 mile from her house) and the leaking Sentra got towed away. Not thinking clearly (but still pragmatically), I got in the bus, fired it up, and headed home. My parents were out of town, so I parked it in the driveway and borrowed my Mom’s car to drive to school the next day. The bus sat in the driveway for a month or so until I decided for good that I didn’t feel safe it it, and we sold it shortly afterwards.
Over at Grantland, Chuck Klosterman writes about the new Van Halen album as an unabashed fan. In summary, I agree with almost everything he says; having listened to the whole thing on Spotify, I’m impressed by the technical accomplishment but ultimately left wanting. I did take issue with the following statement, though (italics mine):
Rolling Stone critic and Grantland contributor Jon Dolan once told me that the core problem with Eddie Van Halen was that his solos were “way too Astroturf,” and I begrudgingly understand what he means — at times, there is an inflexible, synthetic aftertaste to all the finger-tapping and pinballing. Either by accident or on purpose, Eddie galvanized the universal belief in metal circles that playing fast was the only way to prove you were playing well (a collective assumption that lasted from the summer of ’79 until the advent of Slash). Sometimes his competence is repetitive. But his leads are almost always propulsive, and you can’t really criticize his tone; the only thing you can say is that sometimes that tone is better and sometimes that tone is worse.
I disagree with that assessment. Eddie’s strength, what elevated his band above and beyond all the glam-rock wannabes haunting MTV in the eighties, was the mixture of his virtuosity, song composition, and a desire to push things further. Listen to any mid 80’s hair metal guitar solo, and you’re hearing an arpeggio lesson in the back room of the Guitar Center. Listen to the guitar solo in Jump and try to keep time along with it. There’s an arpeggio in there, but it’s bookended by odd, off-time runs and phrases—not the centerpiece of the solo. He leaves that for the synth solo (which I always thought was his way of saying, “I blew your minds six years ago; let’s see if any of you punks have the balls to follow this.”)
Eddie, at his peak, wrote symphonies for a four-piece band while all the kids who worshipped him wrote songs to showcase their finger-tapping speed. The tracks on this new album are better for having Dave present, but there’s a little too much Dave and not enough symphony. Keep working, guys—I’m pulling for you.
I had my first guitar lesson last Tuesday, and it was pretty humbling how much seven years of instrumental training I’ve forgotten. High school music is not a professional education, no matter how good the program (ours was pretty damn good) so I was always able to get by on a minimum of practice and a very good ear, no matter how my teachers lectured me. Plus, renting and transporting a full-size bass violin is not a simple matter, so if I was playing it was at school.
Still, I thought I should have retained more of my theory and reading ability. My teacher patiently ran through the basics with me again, and I had to stop myself from trying to be a know-it-all before I’d even started working with him. We talked about what I wanted to get out of lessons, and after first telling him I wanted to shred like Eddie Van Halen, I told him I’d be happy to learn chords and passable rhythm guitar. He told me to make a CD of some songs I wanted to learn and we’d work on them in turn, so I put together a playlist on my iPod this evening to start.
In no particular order:
|The Eagles||Peaceful Easy Feeling||I have the Eagles Anthology guitar book, so this is a no-brainer.|
|The Dandy Warhols||Boys Better||I have loved the chord progression in this song forever.|
|Weezer||The World Has Turned and Left Me Here||Again, a great chord progression.|
|Wilco||Kamera||I don’t listen to Wilco a lot, but I do like this song.|
|U2||Until the End of the World||I figured I should try at least one U2 song.|
|The La’s||There She Goes||A classic, and a solid rhythm part too.|
|R.E.M.||Texarkana||Can’t go wrong with REM.|
|R.E.M.||Radio Free Europe||Another good REM tune, and it’s a pretty simple chord progression.|
|The Stone Roses||Love Spreads||Love me some Stone Roses.|
|Sixpence None The Richer||Kiss Me||A beautiful acoustic song|
|The Cars||Just What I Needed||Oh, hell yes.|
|Stone Temple Pilots||Interstate Love Song||I love playing this on bass, and it’s full of meaty power chords.|
|The Sundays>||Here’s Where The Story Ends||pretty one-note, now that I listen to it|
|Matthew Sweet||Girlfriend||As much as I’d like to play the lead on this, I’ll be happy to learn the rhythm.|
|The Rolling Stones||Gimme Shelter||I need to learn some Stones, and this is my favorite tune.|
|The White Stripes||Fell In Love With A Girl||This is like Punk 101—guitar and drums.|
|The The||Dogs Of Lust||Eventually I’d like to learn this whole album.|
|The Police||De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da||This may be difficult, but I want to try it.|
|Neil Young and Crazy Horse||Cinnamon Girl||More meaty power chords.|
So far, I’ve got my muscle memory trained for the basic A, G, E and D chords, and I’m working on transitioning between them all fluidly. The D chord is a disaster for my meaty fingertips, like a game of Twister with the lights out, but I’ve got it down where there’s no more buzz on the frets. This evening I worked out the first verses of Boys Better and got the chord changes almost clean—except for that damn D chord. The fingertips on my left hand have a satisfying callous and a pronounced divot.
I never thought I’d say this, but I have to admit that I enjoyed mowing my own lawn this afternoon. My memory of mowing dates back to the days of high school, when I lived in a house on the side of a mountain and my lawn was about the size of a football field and it took a day to finish the whole thing. My Dad had a commercial mower that dated back to before my birth, and weighed more than a Sherman tank. Generally, Diver Down by Van Halen on my Walkman at maximum volume (that was the only way I could hear it over the drone of that 20-year-old engine) was the only thing that made it feasible. Today I put my new Murray 21-inch mower together and did the front and side lawns in 20 minutes. The back lawn is a mixture of grass, exposed roots, downed branches, and English ivy, so it’s a little tricky, but I enjoyed it.
Yesterday Jen and I rented a wallpaper steamer and we were able to get everything of the walls of the Sticky room, the Anxious room, and a large section of the hunting mural in the dining room. The original window showed up in the middle of the mural, covered over with a sheet of drywall and thin skim of plaster. We left the mural in place where it was bonded to the drywall but cleaned up the areas around it in preparation for uncovering the window at a later date. (Say a prayer for us in the hope that the window is still under there.)
Today I ripped about two truckloads of vine from the side of the garage, along the driveway, and beside the property. The tree at the front of the driveway got a pruning as well as the stuff above the garage, and the place looks a lot less overgrown as a result. Jen cooked a huge, delicious lasagna for me, and we devoured our dinner with a bottle of red wine.
4:05 PM. No more downtempo. Van Halen to rock out to. Must get work done.
Smoking Crack, Take 1.Tonight I’m taking apart the innards of a surplus Pelican case I got from an old employer and replacing the foam (fitted for an IBM laptop) with new stuff for my Powerbook. I spent a day or so chasing closed-cell foam down locally, after getting a quote from an Internet source for over $450 for a 4×8′ sheet. Who knew that foam was so expensive? Anyway, I was able to get a whole bagload for $36 from a local supplier in town (cheerfully named the “House of Foam”.) It’s lighter, more pliable, and easier to work with than the original stuff. Today I did a search for “Pelican case” for this post and found that they have an option to buy foam directly. I want to hit myself in the head repeatedly. But I did get to experience the House of Foam, so all was not lost.
Smoking Crack, Take 2. I went to the CompUSA a few days ago and found a copy of Retrospect Express for the low low price of $59. I got it home and excitedly tore the wrapper off to find that it’s mainly just an installed reminder service for one machine, not the centralized multiple backup utility I was hoping for. (Read the box, stupid.) Having ripped off the plastic, I voided the store’s return policy. (Read the receipt, stupid.) I called Dantz and found that I can upgrade to Desktop for another $59, but I was feeling pretty dumb about the whole thing today.
After a four-year dependency, I’m moving away from the usage of a blind HTML page on my site as a bookmark site; every morning when I wake my Powerbook from sleep (or boot my PC workstation at the office) all my browsers point to the same page. This way I avoid migrating troublesome bookmark files from one browser/platform/version to another, and I don’t spend days formatting them to fit my peculiar workflow. With the advent of Safari as my main browser, and its beautiful method of organizing bookmarks, I’m slowly migrating all my favorite links into the browser.
The financial planning meeting went very well, and I left with one very important goal: Sell the house. Fix it, clean it, paint it, sell it. Quickly.
Happy 30th Anniversary, Roe V. Wade. Ladies and Gentlemen, please consider your rapidly dwindling rights as an American citizen and support the 1973 decision. Please don’t let a group of old white men dictate women’s rights.
Another example of how real creative people think. I’ve not taken a lot of pictures these days because it seems like the only time I see the world is when I’m in the car, driving to or from work. And that’s a pretty boring stretch of road. Michael Sippey found a way to make the situation a little more interesting, from a west coast perspective.