Wednesday, January 30, 2008

I've Pledged My Allegiance

I’d like to think that this little reminiscence explains my feelings about the Pledge of Allegiance.

Round about 1958 I was in the seventh grade at Sacred Heart Catholic School in Farmington, New Mexico. My friends Pat O’Harrow, Geno Jaramillo and Larry Reynolds and I had come up with a fun thing to do to allay the boredom of class that involved some dark green construction paper and red pencils. We would spit on the paper and rub the spit with the red pencil, creating a garishly red-black gob of pulpy goo that we would use to create horrible looking gashes on the inside of our left forearms. We were practicing to become makeup artists for horror movies, obviously.

The gashes got quite good, usually a couple of inches long and a half inch wide, filled with the pulpy ichor, and streaming deep red rivulets down from them. Apparently my memory of grade school as being a time of constant scrutiny by the Ursuline nuns is wrong, because it took us at least an hour to come up with these realistic looking, ghastly gashes, which we’d sadly clean off when we got home from school.

I mean it when I say they were very realistic.

Well, one night I was up at Pat O’Harrow’s house, which was a block or so from mine, and we had both adorned our forearms with the best gashes yet. We decided we had to regale someone with them so we left his house and saw that there was some sort of meeting going on at the Pentecostal church right behind Pat’s house. It was an hour or so after sunset and the meeting was in a cinder-block one-story building with casement windows. The inside was brightly lit and there were about 20 young Pentecostals inside and a couple of adults.

Pat and I sneaked up to the building and crawled to directly under the window and peeked inside quickly. Apparently the meeting was just beginning because the group started the Pledge of Allegiance, with all 22 voices strong and stalwart.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag

Of the United States of America . . .”

At this point Pat and I ducked our heads below the window and extended our left arms up and started scratching our fingernails on the glass. The pledge continued, but with a few voices dropping out.

“And to the republic for which it stands . . .”

“Skreeeeeeeee. Skreeeeeeeeee.”

“One nation, under God, indivisible . . .”

The pledge was getting weaker with every horrible screech from our nails. Our arms and the gashes were brilliantly illuminated by the light streaming out through the window.

“With . . . liberty . . . and . . .”

The pledge halted completely, then we heard the loud, choking voice of one of the adults.

“Good . . . Gawd!”

That was it for Pat and me. We took off running down the alley before we could be administered to by the concerned Pentecostals. I’m sure the nuns would have preferred that we have nothing to do with them, no matter how altruistic they may be.

It’s probably wishful thinking that this memorable incident had anything to do with my longheld feelings about the Pledge of Allegiance: that any pledge that is repeated is worthless and is a rite, not a pledge. I made my pledge to America back in 1955 and as far as I’m concerned it’s still in effect. I do not ever need to make it again. In fact if I do make it again it lessens it and turns it into a stupid rite and I detest stupid rites.

However, to keep from causing any hassles, when I’m in a setting where the pledge is dictated to us, I move my lips mindlessly and stare off into space like a moron. Hey, I may be a lousy American, but I am proud to be one of the 300 million luckiest humans to ever inhabit this earth – in spite of the stupid rites we inflict on ourselves.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Why I am a Lousy American

Here's why. If you were to put $10 in my wallet and set me out on the town, I would find a used bookstore and buy a $3 book, go to a Mexican restaurant and spend $5 on the cheapest item on the menu, then go home and take two puffs on a bong and read the book until I fell asleep happy.
But that's not why I'm a lousy American. Here's why. If you were to put $1000 in my wallet and set me out on the town I would find a used bookstore and buy a $3 book, go to a Mexican restaurant and spend $5 on the cheapest item on the menu, then go home and take two puffs on a bong and read the book until I fell asleep happy.
That's why I'm a lousy American.

What I Hate About This Country

I just read in today's NY Times that the brother of Lawrence Tynes, the place kicker for the NY Giants, is in prison for 20 years for smuggling marijuana. One brother kicks a ball and is paid millions of dollars. The other brings joy and inspiration to thousands of people and is thrown in prison to be raped for 20 years. Fuck the USA.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Implosion at Ramble House

I am Fender Tucker and it feels like my world is imploding.

I publish books in a small way and thanks to it I’ve met some very interesting people. In the past three years I’ve met Bill Pronzini, Richard A. Lupoff, Ed Hoch, Cedric and Jan Clute, Francis M. Nevins and through them have heard about Michael Kurland and John Lutz. Yesterday in the mail I received a small package from Cedric Clute containing the January 1976 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

I met Bill Pronzini because his article on Harry Stephen Keeler in Son of Gun in Cheek introduced me to Keeler, whom I now publish. I’ll be publishing a collection of short fiction by Bill later this year. At a visit to his house Bill introduced me to Dick Lupoff, and last year Ramble House published three books by him and will soon release THE TRIUNE MAN, a 1976 SF novel about multiple personality. When it came out, John Lutz and Dick had an extended correspondence about it because the plot was so similar to a story that Lutz had written. It was a case of independent inspiration. Dick is working on a book with Michael Kurland. Pronzini and Lutz co-wrote a book called THE EYE in 1984.

Cedric and Jan Clute I met because of the Keeler books and the fact that I was intrigued by the name of the town where they live, Volcano.

I met Ed Hoch at the 2002 BoucherCon in Austin TX where he and Francis M. Nevins and I paneled a discussion on the History of Mysteries. Ed and Mike were the experts. I was just along for the grand ride.

This morning I read the first story in the AHMM called “Vanishing Act” by Bill Pronzini and Michael Kurland. It takes place in The Magic Cellar, a night club in San Francisco catering to magicians, and some main characters in it are Jan and Cedric Clute, who run the club, and Inspector Lupoff of the SFPD. The second story in the magazine is “The Basilisk Hunt” by Ed Hoch (not much of a coincidence since Ed has a story in every issue) and the sixth is “Wonder World” by John Lutz.

I have yet to read the Hoch and Lutz stories and I’m a little worried what I’ll find when I do. What sort of a labyrinthine mess have I gotten myself into?

Ed Hoch died last week and I sincerely regret that he will not be complicating my life — as he has millions of others’ — as much as he has in the past.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A Song for Maurice Jones

Not long after I became the managing editor for LOADSTAR, a disk magazine for the Commodore computer in 1987, I began getting regular correspondence from Maurice Jones, a Commodore fan from nearby Laneville TX. Since my main interest in computing was programming, and the Commodore was perfect for it, I encouraged all users to learn to program, at least a little, and Maurice leapt into it wholeheartedly. He had been a mainframe programmer back in the days when the only computers were mainframes. His early programs were modest but within a year he began to write excellent card game simulations -- like the Klondike and Free Cell that we've all played on our PCs. Then he and I developed a special font that made the games look even better and before I knew it Maurice had come up with a tool-kit of routines that made it easy for him to develop new games.
By 1989 Maurice was sending me a card game for every monthly issue. He knew the rules for every card solitaire around, and could analyze and categorize them as a chess master analyzes chess games. Then he began developing original card solitaires, ones never even dreamed of by whoever it is that invented the traditional games.
And around 1990 Maurice and I collaborated and invented what we called "Rotato" card solitaires. These were games that involved complex moves of several stacks of cards at a time as part of the puzzle. They were games that would drive a person crazy if he tried to play them using real cards on a table. They couldn't be done. But on a computer, a simple press of a key would start cards flying around the screen. There are several examples of these games on LOADSTAR COMPLEAT, the CD of all of the 199 LOADSTAR issues that were published during my 1987 - 2001 reign at LOADSTAR.
By Issue 1999 Maurice had had 100 card solitaires published on LOADSTAR, about 20 of which were original games never conceived by man, until he invented them. I called him THE Acknowledged Master of Card Game Solitaires, and I challenge anyone to deny him that title. No one on earth knew more, or has invented more card solitaires.
Maurice died in 2001 just as I was running out of steam as the editor. In fact it was the death of Doreen Horne of Australia and Maurice that depressed me so much that I gave up the magazine. Doreen was a programmer who knew the LOADSTAR system so well she was practically doing all the technical work for the last two years of our publication. It was a double blow I couldn't recover from.
I gave a eulogy at Maurice's funeral using oratorical powers I never knew I had -- I can rant but in general can't speak worth a damn -- and I still miss his incredibly astute opinions on programming, card games, politics and life as an East Texas iconoclast.
Early in our relationship, when I was still in the afterthroes of a 25-year career as a bar musician, I asked Maurice what kind of music he liked and he said jazz. I was recording the 60 or so songs I had written during those 25 years at the time and I told him I'd try to write a little jazz song for him. I was not a jazz player by any means. I doubt if I ever played a jazz song in my life. I knew some jazzy chords and had listened to a bit of Louis Armstrong and Frank Sinatra, but I figured I could throw something together that might sound like jazz for Maurice.
So around 1990 I cranked up my four-track Yamaha tape deck, found a mellow, jazzy tone for my guitar (with no distortion) and recorded a little tune off the top of my head. It took about an hour. I simply played the first chord progression that popped into my mind on the keyboard, threw in a bass line, and overdubbed the simplest guitar melody I felt I could play without making any major mistakes. Then I overdubbed an organ solo on top of that. I had played piano in a three-piece lounge group for a year back in the early 80s.
I called it "Maurice's Song " or "LukeWarmJazz" and sent Maurice a copy on cassette tape. No CDs in those days. He said he really liked it, although he didn't really consider it "jazz" and I was supremely flattered.
I still see Maurice's widow, Jo Anne, and his daughter from Austin, Louanne, and have met the other siblings at various family shindigs in Laneville. They are some of my wife's favorite people and provide what is probably the most civilized discourse we have these days. If only Maurice were here to start the discussions! He was a life-long teacher and knew as much about the human condition as any man in Texas.
Here is "Maurice's Song". I doubt if I could ever do anything like that again. It was inspired by something and my fingers must have been under the control of Maurice's telekinetic powers, because I definitely cannot play five verses and two choruses of anything without making numerous mistakes these days. In 1990 it was done in one take for each track. Let's face it. It was Maurice Jones who wrote and played this song, even though it isn't really jazz.
Maurice's Song

Monday, January 21, 2008

A High Plateau in 1968

Lately there has been an interest in the year 1968 because of Tom Brokaw's book and TV documentary. He didn't tell a hundredth of the story. I spent that whole year at Redstone Arsenal AL as an inmate of the US army and there I made friends who have remained my friends ever since. There's something about stupid wars and the threat of imminent death that make camaraderie essential and true. One day in the autumn of that year some friends and I, well-fortified with some excellent inspiration I had received in the mail from an army buddy back at Fort Bliss TX, decided to spend the afternoon in a piano room at the enlisted men's club making music. Three of us were musicians of sorts and, although we had never played together before, we felt we were on a similar plane and could probably jam as well as the 4F guys in Hollywood who were putting out "Supersession" albums.
So, with me on my 1966 Gibson ES-335, Rick Murphy on the piano and Peter Blue on the comb and tissue and vocals, we started playing. Chris Clement had brought along a jury-rigged tape recorder with echo and recorded the whole affair, of which a short segment is provided for your listening enjoyment. Others attending were Rockee (soon to be Peter's wife) and John Lennon (no, not that John Lennon).
The song was completely ad lib and as Peter states, called "Late Again", followed by something that must be known as "High Plateau". After the session we went back to our dreary military jobs, survived the debacle that was Vietnam, and have lived exemplary lives ever since, in spite of the machinations of Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush and whoever next will keep sending young people off to fight for their mistakes.
Ladies and gentlemen, may I present Toehold performing their only hit, "Late Again/High Plateau".

Friday, January 18, 2008

Fun with Chords

In 1973 -- or was it 1974? -- I was living in Farmington New Mexico playing with Bill Smith (bass) and Gary Nabors (drums) -- or was it John Cunningham? -- at Dizzyland Liquors. It was a great place to play. The bar owners, Georgia and Sterling Patterson, were the best bosses I ever had during my 25-year bar band career and we would have a lot of fun playing whatever the hell we wanted six nights a week. I can't imagine music being as fun these days.
We knew hundreds of songs but we still used to get a little bored playing them so we had a gimmick we used quite a bit: we'd take a standard song that was in a normal major key and play it in a minor key; or vice versa. Or we'd take a raucous song like Louie, Louie and play it using all major seventh chords, which musicians know are smooth, jazzy chords totally unsuitable for anything but ballads and haunting love songs. It was incredibly jarring to hear the saucy words of Louie, Louie, or Brown Sugar or Satisfaction sounding like The Four Freshman backed by Guy Lombardo were singing them.
I wish I had more recordings from that era -- as well as a picture of the band -- but I recently did find an old reel-to-reel tape recorded at Dizzie's and one of the songs on it was Miller's Cave, a classic C&W tune written by Bobby Bare. Since the song is about a man who, upon finding his woman cheating with another man, kidnaps them both and drags their bodies into a dark cave, we figured the song needed to be in a dark, minor key instead of the major key it was in. So here it is, in all of its minor-key ominousness.
By the way, I think this sounds pretty damn good for a three-piece band. Bill Smith played bass and harmonica AT THE SAME TIME as well as back me up with some harmony vocals. I am sorry that I can't remember, or identify, whether it was Gary or Johnny on the drums. They were both excellent and I sure wish I knew what they did with the rest of their lives. Bill is still in Farmington and is one of the best guitarists I EVER heard. Like the egotistic fool I was, I played guitar the four years we played together and he played bass, and yet he was always twice the guitarist I was. He could play like Jimi Hendrix almost before Jimi could.
Check it out. And turn it up.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Mystery Has Disappointing Solution

For the past year or so I've been receiving in the mail copies of the Bean Home Newsletter, the newsletter for the Freddy The Pig club, of which I'm a proud member. I loved Freddy as a kid and I have all of his books and occasionally read one for fun. But I've been mystified by the postmark on the newsletter, which shows a couple of cartoon robots and the words GREETINGS FROM RODNEY AND FENDER. Am I the only one getting this postmark? Is it a special message from Freddy to me? Or is something more sinister going on?
Well, I stewed over it for months but only tonight I finally did the logical thing and Googled "rodney fender" and this popped up as #1:

Note the date: 2005. I'm so out of touch with modern culture, if that's what you can call it. What a letdown. How the hell does a children's movie rate -- with a federal agency? And why?

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Harmonics for Dummies (like me)

I play guitar and back in the 60s, 70s and 80s it was how I made my living. I used to know the chords, words and arrangements to over 2000 songs but now I just noodle around playing wild fuzz solos over simple chord patterns. I play maybe two hours a week and consequently I am one of the most undisciplined guitarists you'll ever hear.

But I've developed a way of playing "harmonics" on the guitar that I don't think anyone else plays the same way. Harmonics are bell-like tones you get by touching the string at the same time you pick it. At least that's one way of playing harmonics. ZZ Top, Eric Clapton and Roy Buchanan have used harmonics on their recordings a lot. Probably many others, too -- I dunno, I haven't listened to music in decades. So if you're an electric guitarist and want to play some wild sounding harmonics, you might try doing them the way I do.

The picture above shows that as I pick the string on the upstroke, I also hit the string (lightly) with the pad of my fourth (ring) finger at the same time, about an inch down the string from where the pick hits it. NOTE: I can only do this on an upstroke of the pick. This means I can't play harmonics very fast. Perhaps you can figure out how to do it on the downstroke too and play harmonics like a demon?

By hitting the string at two points at the same time you get a bell-like tone, the pitch of which is determined by the fret you're playing AND the length of the string from where my ring finger hits the string and the bridge. It's the two pitches sounded at the same time that gives the ring modulation (bell-like tone) that we call harmonics. By moving my right hand a different distance from the bridge I get a completely different pitch even if my left hand is playing the same fret -- or open string.

Here is a link to a simple boogie that I play on my Fender G-Dec amp that is straight for the first verse and has a bunch of harmonics on the rest of the song. Note that in order to get the harmonics to ring out nice and loud you need to have a treble, hot sound on your guitar. My harmonics are probably very hard to do on an acoustic guitar.

Surely any guitarist who practices regularly and knows some good licks can take this technique and make something really good out of it. I only play at home and I'm sure my family wonders why those obnoxious bell-like tones keep annoying them from the depths of my book room.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Keeler Scholar Has Great Idea

I was reading an article on the op-ed page in the NY Times today about a scheme to insure that voting machine results hadn't been changed. It is so simple, and elegant, that as I read the article I kept getting more and more excited about it. And when I finished I looked up to see who had written it and it was William Poundstone, one of the founding fathers of the Harry Stephen Keeler movement. He even won the Imitate Keeler Contest this year with a story that I consider the quintessential Keeler pastiche.
The scheme involves giving out random paper proof of how a person voted -- but not to the person. To a different, randomly selected person. The main argument against paper proof is that people can be intimidated if they have a proof of how they voted on their person. Or if they throw their paper proof away, someone unscrupulous can find it and change that person's vote, knowing that the paper proof is in THEIR possession, not the voter's. According to the article, handing out as few as 50 randomly selected paper proofs can prove voting fraud in any size of election.
I love simple elegant schemes and algorithms. Nero Wolfe used to use them and I always wondered why police departments and detectives didn't study Nero Wolfe's techniques to trap criminals, rather than use the stupid sting operations they use now that are usually entrapment.
My congratulations to Bill Poundstone for using his considerable brain to solve a problem that would have befuddled politicians for centuries. Harry Keeler would have been proud.
Please check out the article if you get the chance. Isn't it great when science beats the hell out of faith? I subscribe to the NY Times so maybe this link won't work for you, but give it a try.