Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Sound Track

Something about a song lyric, popping up in your ear at just the right time and your life can flash by.  Maybe not your entire life, but certainly a few segments.
One of the things that keeps me exercising regularly is the ability to listen to music while doing so.  I move around on Pandora a lot and ultimately settle on a genre.  Usually it's blues music because I know that will keep me awake and to the task at hand.  But occasionally I wonder over to Neil Young or Dylan, or even Jonathan Edwards, a lesser known country rock artist whose sounds often sooth better than a cool drink of water.
Today, a combination of all three took me back to lovers and friends from decades past.  I realized that you never stop loving someone unless you work at it.  There were a couple of times, OK maybe even more than two, when a relationship in my back pages ended and I was feeling undone.  We've all been there but when Dylan sings "If you see her, say hello..." a stone cracks inside me and the beauty and pain and gratitude as well as regret pours out.

As I get older I'm amazed by how often I hold images of people I've known in my mind.  It doesn't matter how many years have transpired since we last saw one another.  True with social media, we have the ability to peer into windows that are open for all.
I've come to believe that we all have a sound track to our lives.  Just as the things we see and experience at certain ages stay with us, the emotions tied to certain pieces of music or places or the artists that accompanied both hold a key to our emotional literacy.  We tend to remember what is held together by strong emotions.  The research supports that, but it doesn't take a study to realize that emotion is thicker than most all else.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Houston Then and Now

It's difficult for me to watch the grim footage coming out of Houston, Texas without thinking about the year I spent there as a VISTA Volunteer.  I knew very little about this 4th largest city back then and in full disclosure, even as a recent college grad, I was heavily influenced by the stereotypes, positive and negative, that focused on TEXAS.
I wasn't even sure I could spend a year in Texas back then.  But, as often happens, when you immerse yourself in what you are doing and keep an open mindset, you often find that the result is pleasantly surprising.
I found plenty of decent people in Houston.  There was Carl Adams, the former trumpet player for such notables as B.B. King and Ray Charles, who wanted with all his heart and soul to run music workshops for kids who lived in under-privileged neighborhoods.  Houston had plenty of those, and when I see much of the footage today of the flooded homes, I wonder what it looks like where I once say large projects for low-income families, and the dismal parts of 3rd and 5th and 6th Ward neighborhoods.

Much of Houston's poverty back then reflected the images of classic Southern poverty.  Lots of "shot-gun shacks" and plenty of old wooden homes up on cinder blocks.  High water is nothing new to Texas and the history of the region is peppered with "great floods" of various years.  The wonderful blues music of some of the regions best clearly illustrates this as well.
I wonder, too if some of the people I met over 40 years ago are still there.  Many of the children would be in their late 40s and 50s.  I'm sure the old redneck who rented us a dilapidated home for $100 a month is long gone as well as the used appliance salesman who sold us a $10. refrigerator and then responded to our address, "You mean you live in colored town, with all those colored boys?"
He and his ilk are not part of the new Houston.  The fact that there is now aa African American Mayor and a Latino Chief of Police show progress and that real change did come to Houston.
Still, he the media reports on and from Buffalo Bayou, I still see it as the place where more than one victim of police brutality was taken to receive justice, Texas style.
Houston will recover and continue to be the home of a diverse community of pioneers, ethnic cultural workers, and loyal Texans.

Saturday, August 26, 2017


In this world of rapid change, it's refreshing to find something that stays the same.  Almost.
Once a year, for two weeks, the little Humbolt County Fair in the small town of Ferndale, California kicks off.  I've heard it's the longest continually running county fair, stretching back to the 1870s if I remember correctly.

Let me set the context, because that's part of the appeal.  Ferndale is a tiny dairy community tucked into the mountains of very Northern California, not far from the costal city of Eureka.  This is beautiful country where redwoods meet the pounding sea.  I've been there a handful of times and now I'm thrilled to be able to watch the horse races at the fair from my TV or computer screen given the technology available now.  The fair is like most county fairs with fried everything and lots of animal exhibits and show competitions.  Against this beautiful backdrop sits a little 5/8 mile racetrack, as cute as it is dangerous.  Tight turns, the intimacy of the crowd and animals, and the enthusiasm by all involved make this a special place.  For once, it's not about the competition as much as it's about enjoying yourself.

Rumors and folklore about Ferndale abound.  From the legendary announcer Gunnar Froines, to died a few years back, to the year of the moth invasion, to the many tales of horses that missed the turns, it's all part of the mystique.  The stories would fill volumes and the fact that this little gem of a fair continues to this day virtually the same, is a modern miracle.
I've done a few articles on Ferndale, once even getting the cover story for The Blood-Horse magazine, where I was a correspondent for almost 20 years.  There is just something touching about this place because of it's size and it's unusual appearance.  Being a dairy town, the home to a Knudsen Creamery, the baked potatoes with sour cream are exceptional.  He townsfolk, so I've heard, save up all year for two weeks of betting horses, enjoying the fair daily, and just marveling at what they've got.  Aside from horses best described as underachievers, what's they've got is something historical, consistent, and timeless.  This is horse racing as it was, with all the risk, color, and pageantry on a slightly smaller scale.
Racing at Ferndale is capped off with the running of the Humbolt County Marathon, at a mile and 5/8.  That means three complete circles around the track.  The lore says that in the beginning, each jockey was given 3 pebbles to hold in their mouth as the race was run.  Every time they crossed the finish line they were to spit out one pebble.  When the third pebble was gone, they were to ride to the finish line one more time and the race was over.  Somehow, I believe this story.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Street Dance

He knows there is something there,
Something most of us can't see,
So he darts out in the middle of the street to peck
the unpeckable.
That's what crows do,
I see it and want it, but there are cars
from both directions
cars that can stop his vision in one spasm of the neck.
Still he pecks,
until the last second, then hops or flies or sometimes walks
as if his life were not at stake.

She has a family to feed,
nothing can go to waste,
Risks envelop everything, they hatch
at all hours,
so she darts, she flirts with the steel boxes
that form the carnival ride of chance.
Something I can digest is hiding from those
that do not see.
Still, she pecks until the sound descends,
she flits aside at the last second,
as if her life were not at stake.

Monday, August 7, 2017


Sometimes trying to simplify our lives can get complicated.  Cutting back and letting go of things need not be so difficult.  In fact, the two or three times I've made a concentrated effort to downsize were absolutely exhilarating.  Filling up a dumpster with material things that have stayed too long at the fair is a very visual measurement of how attached we get to the non-essential.
I've begun to think about finding new homes for anything I still cling to that might be of some value.  In full disclosure, nothing I currently possess is of significant value that it couldn't be replaced if necessary.  Although, my little collection of historical books and primary source objects, while not really worth much, would be difficult to reproduce.
Though my wife worries that some of my most interesting items would be difficult to "place" I constantly assure her that a museum or two would take some and a used record store right down the street would be the place to take my record collection.  Anything they don't want could go to Goodwill or even be placed outside on the sidewalk.  It all disappears and rather quickly.
I had something a few years ago that I really wanted to find a good home for...something that I kept to remind me of the time I owned a horse.  It was a hackamore bridle.  This bridle differs from a standard one in that it has no bit that goes into the horse's mouth.  Granted, you have less control, but the big mare we rode with the hackamore was gentle enough that the hackamore was a good choice for all.

I put the hackamore out at a yard sale I had with some friends many years ago, and actually ended up selling it to someone I knew.
Luis Niebla bought the bridle for a measly $10.  I really wanted him to have it because I knew it would get used.  Luis was a jockey I knew who worked for two trainers that had been movie stuntmen in the Hollywood of the 30s and 40s.  They did stunts for John Wayne among other famous screen cowboys.  Luis was the stable rider, in that he rode horses of theirs in minor races.  If ever they had one good enough to compete in stakes races, another more accomplished jock would be engaged.   Luis didn't mind, he had a home, a few mounts a year, and a source of income.  Wayne Burson and Chuck Roberson  (the trainers) would barnstorm some years at the small California and Nevada Fair circuit.   Sometimes their horses were more experienced than people knew because some of the fairs, especially the Nevada ones were so small that statistics weren't recorded.
I once asked Luis how and when he came to California from Mexico.  The answer was astonishing.  Luis was the little Mexican kid in the movie "Stagecoach" that went for a wild ride with John Wane on an out of control coach.  After the filming, he came to California to work at the Bakersfield ranch of his stuntmen friends.
BY the time I met Luis, he was the most unassuming person.  He never won many races.  I even looked up his stats.  He's listed as having 89 wins and 89 second place finishes.  I know there were many more...somewhere.
So that day when Luis appeared at my yard sale, I knew he'd go home with the hackamore.  Hopefully a horse with as kind a disposition as this jockey is enjoying the feel of the fit.

Monday, July 31, 2017

A Play Has Got To Say Something

With the passing of American playwright Sam Shepard, I was reminded of a most interesting experience that unfolded at the scene of what is arguably Shepard's most critically acclaimed play, "Buried Child."
Here's what happened.
I'd read some of the reviews of the play and wanted to see it.  So I asked a friend of mine to accompany me.  My friend, Ed Robbin had joined the cast of a modest production about the life of Woody Guthrie that I too was involved in at the time.  We're talking Bay Area circa early 1980s.
Ed had directed plays in the 30s and aside from being the guy who first put Woody on the radio, has a few accomplished friends.  He'd drop names like Theodore Dreiser or mention projects he's worked on with frequency so I thought, naturally it would be useful and informative to watch this play with Ed.  Besides, Ed was in his late 70s at this time and was delighted to get the opportunity to attend a play in San Francisco without having to drive at night.
Now, "Buried Child" was a bit of an avant guarde play and I was sure Ed would share his thoughts in a way that might put this particular piece of work in perspective.  Ed had liberally sprinkled his expertise as a director on our small Woody Guthrie production, so I knew he could talk the talk.
We watch the play and then before the audience leaves, the director comes onstage and informs the audience that they are being afforded the opportunity to meet the cast and director.
If interested, we can make our way downstairs to the first 10 rows of the center section of the theater and the discussion of the play will promptly begin in in about 5 minutes.
Most people depart the theater to cabs and nearby parking lot, but I ask Ed if he wants to remain and he quickly says, "sure."

We join about 75 people downstairs and await this opportunity.
The curtain opens to the cast arranged on chairs in a half moon behind the director.
The director thanks everybody and then begins to entertain questions or comments from the audience.
After a few comments about the plot and characters, my friend Ed rises and raises his hand.  He was immediately recognized.  I knew he would be because of his appearance.  Ed is an olive skinned man with long white hair covered by a seaman's cap.  He just looks like he is somebody worthy of comment.
Ed addresses the actors first: "You're all very good." Then he looks at the director.  But the play doesn't say anything.  A play has got to say something, and this play doesn't say anything."
Silence.  Ed looks at me.  "C'mon Bruce, let's go."
I always wondered if Sam Shepard was in the house that night.  One thing I do know is that "Buried Child" won the Pulitzer Prize that year.  So...somebody heard something.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Wild Man Fischer

Most people ignored him.  Even though he smiled and could talk softly. He offered his wares.  "Want to buy a song for a dime?"  Ten thin tenth of a dollar was all it took for Widman Fischer to sing his original compositions to you.  Most often I heard him sing "Merry Go Round," but occasionally he'd belt out "Linda and Laurie."
     Oh Linda!...Oh Laurie!
     Oh Linda!...Oh Laurie!

Sort of a lilting up and down voice collage much like the "Merry Go Round" refrain. A human calliope.
He was a fixture on the streets of L.A. in the late 60s and a regular on the UCLA campus where I spent my junior and senior years of college.
By the time I was ready to graduate, Widman Fischer, who we all knew was a paranoid schizophrenic, but harmless, had witnessed first hand many of the people and events of those politically flaming days.

 Anti-war demonstrations, take overs of the Administration building, Black Panther Party shootings, you name it, it happened in 1968 or thereabout.  What also happened that year was a new concept in university literary magazines.  It was called Laminas I and came in a box, in layers.  There were poems and essays, short stories and cartoons, line drawings and music.  The latter was a 7" LP that, among other things featured a handful of performances by Widman Fischer.  I briefly helped edit the magazine and received a free copy for my time.
It came as no surprise to me that in the years that followed, none other than Frank Zappa became aware of Larry Fischer (aka Widman) and recorded him.  Even though I spent much of 1970 out of California, I'd heard that Zappa was having Widman Fischer open for him at some concerts.  If anyone could appreciate the genius of Larry Fischer it would be a risk taker like Zappa.
I have a few pieces of that 1968 magazine in a box.  I don't know what happened to the 3 poems I had published in that issue, or some of the art work, but I do still have the recording.  I kept it, because of its size with a small, select, group of 45s I used for a teaching unit on the concept of death and dying in popular music.  The little 33 1/2 rpm recording fit nicely in boxes with the 45s.
Last week, while watching a PBS program about a lost collage by Frank Zappa, I thought of Widman Fischer and his music.  Sure enough, I located the recording from almost 50 years ago.  The once white record sleeve is faded, but the record itself is in good shape.  I'm, hoping a Zappa collector or collector of off beat music will be interested, because I have a lot less than 50 years to find a home for some of the things I clung to for so many years. Want to hear a song for a dime?