I've been writing
music reviews since high school, and I've co-authored "The
Toy Book" (1991, Alfred Knopf), a history of toys of the Baby-Boom
generation, with Leland Rucker. I've written for a variety of publications
from the "Music Hound" series of books to Rolling Stone over
the years, ranging from news to criticism. The index below takes you
to some of my older writing.
My weekly "Nikkei
View" columns, about popular culture and politics from a
third-generation Japanese-American perspective, are on their own Web
site: http://nikkeiview.com. You can also check out my Nikkeiview Blogs. Please
visit, and let me know what you
Contact me at:
Some of my writing is available online,
sometimes on other Web sites. I'll add links here as I come across
them while surfing:
radio pioneer on-air in Denver
This piece about Raechel
Donahue, one of the creators of "freeform radio" back
in the 1960s, was written in 2003 for DenverPost.com, when I discovered
she was working at a local station.
This piece and accompanying
article, which ran as the cover story of a Saturday "Spotlight"
section, was an introduction to Denver's Asian hotspots, and the
businesses and restaurants readers can find in these three ethnic
areas of town.
Scents of Japan
A story about a Japanes
incense company with an office in Boulder, whch ran in the Boulder
Imports Taste of the Tropics
The Boulder Daily Camera
ran this story about a Madagascan couple that sells imported products
at the Outdoor Market, and sends part of the proceeds to poor villages
in their native country.
This feature story about
a Tibetan flute player living in Boulder ran in Mandala magazine,
a national Buddhist publication.
Out for the Past
This is the main story
of a package that ran in the Denver Post that also includes this
sidebar. The package was planned to commemorate the Japanese
American Day of Remembrance. The main story is about Camp Amache,
the Japanese American internment camp in SE Colorado; the sidebar
has six profiles of area JA leaders. I've also posted an
extra article that I wrote but didn't fit in the Post's package,
about Dr. Satsuki Ina and her work with the "Children of the
Chinese Kung Fu Connection
The Shaolin Hung
Mei Kung Fu Academy is Boulder's bridge to Chinese martial arts
and culture. Story written for Boulder Magazine.
Fair a New Approach for Job Seekers
I wrote regularly for a now-defunct techology business newspaper,
Front Range TechBiz, including this piece.
the Surface of the Japanophile Fad
A commentary published
in Newsweek Japan -- in Japanese.
Musicians Make Music and History
A history of Boulder's
music scene since the 1970s, which ran in Boulder Magazine's 25th
of Far East Leads Trade Mission to Japan
A profile of Edgar Johansson,
who oversees Asian affairs for Colorado's Office of Economic Development
and International Trade, on the eve of a trip to Japan. The story
ran in the Rocky Mountain News.
Lion Wakes Tonight
A freelance piece for
the Denver Post about the Chinese New Year tradition of Lion Dance
Meets East: Today's Asian Influences
An article for Gaiam.com about the poularity of Asian culture in
the American mainstream.
An article on how American lifestyles changed
after 9/11, written for Gaiam.com.
Hill Teaches with Picks 'n' Grins
A freelance piece for
the Rocky Mountain News about Denver's Swallow Hill Music Association,
the folk music resource center, concert hall and school.
On --Hipster Haven Rock Island Turns 15
A freelance piece for
the Rocky Mountain News about a popular Denver nightclub.
Mugge Profile for Blues Access
Here's a profile of
acclaimed music documentary filmmaker Bob Mugge, written for Blues
Emmylou Harris' "Portraits"
A long review
I wrote for No Depression magazine of Emmylou Harris' career retrospective
Attacking AOL, You Net Snobs
At the risk of inviting
flame e-mails from rabid, anti-AOL Net-heads, I want to share a
commentary piece I wrote for the Sunday, February 13 Business section
of the Denver Rocky Mountain News.
Star:Tommy Bolin's Life and Death
Little did I know that
a story I wrote in 1989 for Denver's alternative weekly newspaper,
Westword, had been
passed around for years as the definitive biography of Tommy Bolin.
Bolin, a talented rock guitarist who rose out of Colorado's music
scene in the late '60s and early '70s, died of a drug overdose while
I was in college. I wrote about Bolin when a boxed set was
released chronicling his career, and ever since then, Bolin fans
have been mailing copies of the article to each other. In 2000,
a fan contacted me and asked permission to interview me and post
the article on the Web. How cool is the Internet? Very! When that
Web site took the article down I began getting e-mails from Bolin
fans wanting to read it, so I've posted it on my own site.
Passage from The Toy Book
A Norwegian Twister
fanatic posted the text about the game from The Toy Book
on this page.
from U.N.C.L.E." Excerpt from The Toy Book
Here's another passage
from the book, on a "Man from U.N.C.L.E." collectors'
Here's a story I wrote
for the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph (now just "Gazette")
about the singer-songwriter David Wilcox. I didn't know he had it
on his home page.
road trip to the SXSW Music & Media Conference
It's a trip I've made for
over a dozen years. It's long, it's self-indulgent, but you might
online tribute to Alan Dumas
He was a writer and bon
vivant who died suddenly of a heart attack. You can read thoughts
on Alan's life as well as stories from others, and see what a remarkable
man he was.
ON THE PASSING
OF A GENERATION -- FRANK SINATRA, 1915-1998
Frank Sinatra's death made me think about my father, who died a few
years ago. And it made me realize that along with Ol' Blue Eyes, an
entire generation is officially fading into the mists of history.
Sure, there are contemporaries of Sinatra still alive -- isn't Bob Hope
still hanging on? -- but Frankie, and his 1950s and '60s "Rat Pack"
of singers Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. and actor Peter Lawford,
defined sophistication and high society, the entertainment world's elite,
for the generation that spawned me and 76.5 million other Baby Boomers.
Sinatra was a self-taught singer with a velvety baritone that instinctively
wrapped itself around songs like honey around a spoon -- or, as a friend
of mine describes it, like a saxophone at 4 a.m.
His warm intonation, obvious confidence and sharp sense of timing --
he always knew when to stretch out a lyric or a melody and when to cut
it short -- matched to his charming good looks (when he was young, he
was downright runty instead of the tough, imposing "Chairman of
the Board" image he later projected) made him a superstar for the
"bobby-soxers," the teenyboppers of the '40s.
Even as an anonymous singer instead of a frontman, his voice lit up
the hits of big bands like those of Harry James and Tommy Dorsey during
WWII, and it still echoes today in the singing of rock singers everywhere,
never mind pop crooners and jazz vocalists.
In 1952 Sinatra's vocal cords hemorrhaged and with his music career
on hiatus, his star began to dim. But he had already been acting in
movies (playing singers, not surprisingly, at first) and he shone brightly
in the '50s on screen, acting in dramatic roles like "From Here
to Enternity" (1953), for which he won an Oscar and a rep as the
By the '60s, Sinatra was riding his third career wave, as a middle-level
movie star and the driving force behind his own record label, Reprise,
making the music that would become the lounge standards of today ("Strangers
in the Night" and "That's Life" were the biggest hits
of this era). He ruled Las Vegas, the pinnacle of class for my parents'
Francis Albert Sinatra had one more significant surge in his long and
winding career in the '80s, thanks to "New York, New York,"
the enduring title song from the dog 1980 movie, and a series of arena-busting
tours. I was lucky enough to see Sinatra at one stop at Denver's McNichols
Arena, and I'm glad I did, even though I thought his performance was
uninspired and by rote.
Hell, at this point, he could sing those songs in his sleep and still
get a standing ovation.
More recently, Sinatra's served as little more than an icon for the
World War II generation. He made a lame attempt at connecting with MTV
viewers a la Tony Bennett with a couple of awful (and awfully conceived)
"duet" CDs where he teamed up with the likes of Bono, with
whom he couldn't be bothered to sing face-to-face with so they recorded
disembodied vocal tracks separately.
I thought he was buried under his own giant pile of hype, and had become
the tough jerk the media often portrayed him as. I got the feeling that
"Saturday Night Live" star Phil Hartman's icky satire of Sinatra
was pretty close to the real Frank.
And, he got old and ill. He died of a heart attack at 82 in the hospital,
with family members close by.
More than the passing of such movie stars as Henry Fonda or Jimmy Stewart,
Sinatra's death marks the passing of his generation because unlike movies,
where you have to go to a theater, turn on the TV or pop in the video,
music is everywhere. Pop music truly is the soundtrack to all our lives
-- ever since recording technology made "popular" music possible,
It's in the background at stores, and in the car, and at the restaurant.
It's even in movies and on TV -- "Strangers in the Night"
has been featured in two TV commercials I can think of off the top of
my head, for Nissan and Bud, just in the past few years.
So Frankie's music has been a constant thread stretching from my Dad's
Wonder Years all the way through mine to today. That being the case,
of course, we won't miss Frank Sinatra that much. His music's preserved
forever on dozens of CDs including a handful of great boxed sets, both
on Reprise and his earlier label from the 1950s, Capitol Records.
Go out and find them, Baby Boomers, to relive your life. It's OK to
be nostalgic over this one.
And you youngsters out there, who think Sinatra's just another soundbyte
in the novelty fad of "lounge" music, dig a little deeper
than "New York, New York." Listen to "In the Wee Small
Hours" (1955) or "Songs for Swinging Lovers" ('56), when
he was inventing how a pop music star should sound.
Those recordings are what will make his legacy resound long after the
Boomers are gone.
Written upon the news of Frank Sinatra's death on May 14, 1998, and
published online with Digital City Denver, keyword: Denver on AOL.
Poor Rolling Stones. Poor Mick, Keith, Ron and Charlie (bassist Bill
Wyman made his exit several years ago, so I'm not gonna feel sorry
for him). Poor, poor Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band in the World.
Because when you're the greatest, instead of no expectations, it's
hard to meet expectations. Because no matter what you do, it seems
fans and critics just can't get no satisfaction.
Because when you've helped shape the sound of popular music the way
the Stones and just a handful of other artists have in the decades
since Elvis shook his pelvis on a flickering, black-and-white television
screen, your legacy to the world will always be the stuff that made
your rep, not the stuff that you do for the rest of your life.
And that's really where the Rolling Stones are at this advanced stage
of their 35-year career.
They're a cultural institution, the boomer generation's role model
for naughty, rock 'n' roll behavior. The original Bad Boys of rock,
the dark side of the Beatles' bubbly personalities. As the critics
like to point out, these guys didn't want to hold girls' hands, yeah
yeah yeah. They wanted, from the start, to spend the night together
with them. (So did the Beatles, but they were polite lads and hid
So even though the Stones' new single, "Anybody Seen My Baby?"
is the most-added single to radio stations across the country, it's
likely that in a year, after the current buzz around the band's "Bridges
to Babylon" CD and sudden world tour has been through the music
industry's spin cycle, radio stations everywhere will go back to mostly
playing "Satisfaction," "Tumbling Dice," "Jumpin'
Jack Flash," "Honky Tonk Women," "Angie"
and "Start Me Up," and pretty much ignoring "Bridges"
the way radio has ignored a lot of the good songs from recent Stones
This isn't all the Stones' fault, though plenty of critics (myself
included) have beaten them up since about 1981's "Tattoo You"
for rehashing old riffs and song structures, of not having anything
new or original to say or of becoming aged caricatures of their young
turk personas. It's our fault for hoping for something new but really
wanting what we've come to expect of the band. It's not their fault
if they deliver.
It's not their fault, because Keith is still one of the few rock guitarists
who you can identify from just a couple of cast-off, swaggering notes;
Mick can still sing like the faux blooz guy he is, without wallowing
in self-caricature; and because frankly, Mick and Keith can still
write some darned good songs.
The surging opening track, a classic Stones construction (and ready-made
bookend to "Start Me Up," perfect for some other computer
company commercial) called "Flip the Switch" is a great
example. It's so fun you can't ignore it, even though (or perhaps
because) it opens in the time-honored tradition of so many Glimmer
Twin-penned rockers, with Watts' drumming setting up a swinging foundation,
then guitar and bass coming in after a few bars and building to Jagger's
But the rocking first track is misleading in a way - the new album's
best songs are the mid-tempo tracks and ballads, such as "Anybody
Seen My Baby" (which co-opts such an obvious bit of k.d. lang's
"Constant Craving" melody that Mick and Keith gave lang
co-credit) and "How Can I Stop," a moody, skeletal soul
song sung by a supremely tired-sounding Richards that could almost
be classic Motown, or better yet Curtis Mayfield, if it weren't so
In between are songs featuring what we expect from the Stones - crunchy
rock propelled by shards of perfectly distorted guitar chords - and
the unexpected - a pretty believable reggae track sung by Keith and
a token appearance of sonic sampling from the currently hot producers
the Dust (Beck) Brothers, who bring their techno-electronica approach
to what Jagger calls in Rolling Stone magazine, "fake blues for
The description fits, all right, but don't look for the Stones to
break new artistic ground here - they've always experimented and accepted
the trendy sounds of the day, from the garish psychedelia of the 1967
"Their Satanic Majesties Request" to the touches of country
that first appeared during the "Wild Horses" phase, or the
disco/funk of 1978's "Miss You." "Bridges To Babylon"
ultimately is no more a "techno" album than U2's forgettable
"Pop" of last year. Even when the Stones dress up their
sound to suit the popular marketplace, they can't help sounding just
like they always have - a little combo that managed to morph the blues
into modern rock 'n' roll.
That accomplishment is nothing to sneeze at, and why the Stones deserve
their place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: They helped evolve
rock from its early phase when it sounded more like R&B and soul
(Chuck Berry) or country (rockabilly) into its own style, and its
own audience. Starting in the late '60s, the Stones invented the rock
tour, going from city to city every few years and playing arenas and
larger venues instead of small theaters better suited to accommodate
vaudeville shows. And along with the massive tours, the Stones made
the music sound better for larger audiences -- they invented the modern
concert sound system.
So in a year or two, when classic rock radio ignores the gems on "Bridges
To Babylon," and returns to playing the twelve Stones songs that
are already overplayed to death, you can feel sorry for Mick and Keith
and the boys, too, because they're a prisoner of their awesome past
and early accomplishments.
Then turn off your radio and crank up "Babylon," and remember
that this bunch of 50-something players got their ya-yas out - and
yours too - one more time.
This essay was posted on AOL's Digital City Denver, 1998.
A TRIBUTE TO
I first met my friend Dennis just a few years ago, when he was
already physically devastated by Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis --
or ALS, better known as "Lou Gherig's Disease" for the famous
baseball star who died from it in 1941. He spent his days propped
up on a couch in his parents' basement in Westminster.
He already had lived longer than initially expected, but he was slowly
but surely becoming almost completely disabled.
He couldn't move his arms. My wife Kathi, who had been his friend
since the late '70s, had to light a cigarette for him and stick it
in his mouth so he could take a drag. He used his feet, which were
surprisingly dextrous, to dial and answer the speaker phone on the
coffeetable in front of him.
I attended a memorial service for Dennis this week, but I won't remember
Dennis with any sadness or pity for his final months, which were spent
in the isolation of a Denver hospice-care facility called Vencor.
Sure, he was immobile and couldn't even speak anymore without great
effort and a gadget that helped him make sounds, sort of. Most of
the time, he simply mouthed his words and we strained to read his
lips. But his eyes were always sparkling, his humor always vibrant
and spirit buoyant, even the last time Kathi and I visited.
And, the magic of computers and the Internet gave him a kind of freedom
from his physical limitations that wouldn't have been possible just
a few years ago.
When Dennis moved from his folks' home to a Capitol Hill managed-care
apartment where he was moved around from room to room in a wheelchair,
he told us he was applying for a grant to get a fancy computer setup,
but I didn't understand the impact this equipment would have.
I was amazed when I finally saw his setup.
Even though he couldn't move a limb, he could move his facial muscles,
and tilt his head just enough so that he could control his computer's
cursor using a triangulated system of lasers that bounced off a reflector
on his eyeglasses and back to sensors atop his PC monitor.
He used word-processing software that automatically typed if he kept
the cursor on a letter for more than a fraction of a second; this
way, he could slowly write out sentences and phrases and send e-mail,
letter-by-letter. It was excruciatingly slow and draining for him,
but he would start typing if we weren't able to read his lips, until
he got too exhausted and kicked us out of his room. He also controlled
various remote controls for the TV and his stereo (which he loaded
with a stack of CDs at a time so he wouldn't have to ask hospital
staff to pick out the music he wanted to hear) with his PC.
Best of all, he could go almost anywhere and virtually "do"
anything via the Internet.
He surfed sites about the moon and the stars, an abiding interest.
He surfed music Web sites. He kept up with news, and he kept in touch
with frends and family by e-mail (his parents even got a computer
so they could send him e-mail). He went to places like Antarctica
and used downloaded GIF images for his PC's background wallpaper.
And of course, he learned a lot about ALS.
As with everything else on the Web, you can do an Internet search
for "Lou Gherig's Disease" and come up with a number of
informative sites. ALS, you'll find, is defined as "a progressive,
degenerative disease of the motor neurons of the brain stem and spinal
cord, characterized by a general weakening and wasting of the voluntary
muscles, and eventually complete paralysis."
I've picked two Web sites that have helped me learn more about the
disease, and want to share them with you: The home page for the ALS
Association, which is dedicated to research and advocacy to find
a cure, and a private home page by Bob Broedel titled "ALS
Lou Gherig's Disease," which includes many helpful links
and resources (like one to "30 Ways to Help Those with serious
Illnesses" and lots of background on Lou Gherig himself).
Of course I'd feel great if some of you visited these sites and supported
the fight against ALS, but I also want to make sure everyone understands
that the Internet is a wonderful and amazing resource for education
and a way to enrich our lives, even if in other ways our lives may
be full of suffering. You can search the Web for information on any
disease or condition that exists, and chances are you'll be able to
learn something about it.
That ability, and the ability to surf the Web for entertainment when
other entertainment -- even reading a book -- was no longer an option,
is what gave Dennis his upbeat outlook on his life. He knew when he
checked in to Vencor that he wouldn't be leaving, but that didn't
stop him from wandering off from there every day and every night,
whenever he felt the urge, via a computer, modem and the Internet.
That's one reason why, at his memorial service, his sister Kim told
his friends and family not to mourn too much or too long. "Dennis
wanted me to be sure and let you all know he loved his life and he
did everything he wanted," she said.
He's still surfing out there in cyberspace, I'm sure. Whenever we
had to leave, Dennis would turn his head slightly, spear us with his
baby-blues and mouth the words, "I love you," then turn
back to his monitor.
We love you too, Dennis. Happy surfing forever.
This tribute was written in 1997, and posted on a page of weekly
Web picks by the staff of Digital City Denver.
PERSONAL MISSION: THE BLACK AMERICAN WEST MUSEUM
The Black American West Museum's slogan is "We Tell It Like
It Was," and the telling starts on the sidewalk outside. In front
of the wrought-iron gates adorned with cowboys atop bucking broncs,
a marker proclaims under a portrait, "Bill Pickett, 1871-1932,
Bulldogger." It's the first of what will hopefully be a series
in the museum's "Black Cowboys Walk of Fame."
Most people wouldn't know Bill Pickett's name, but he was a famous
rodeo cowboy in his day, and his anonymity is exactly the reason this
museum was created by Paul Stewart, a self-made scholar and historian
who grew up dreaming of being a cowboy.
The oft-told story is that as a child growing up in Clinton, Iowa
during the 1930s, Stewart didn't think there was ever such a thing
as an African-American cowboy. "When we played cowboys and Indians,
I always had to play an Indian," Stewart has recalled on "The
Today Show," "CBS This Morning" and other national
media outlets, "because there was no such thing as a black
At least, not in the popular culture of the day - it was the era of
Hopalong Cassidy, Tom Mix and Gene Autry, a time when Wild West memories
were still fresh for old-timers and cowboy fantasies caught kids'
fancies. And the fantasies that Hollywood rolled weekly on neighborhood
movie screens and over radio serials all featured white cowboys fighting
But the historical reality is that a third of the men and women who
tamed the Wild West were black, a fact that Paul Stewart discovered
as a grownup.
In the 1960s when he traveled to Denver to visit a cousin, he repeated
the same line he'd been told years before. "My cousin was driving
me around the different areas of town, because I liked Denver and
thought I might move here," he says. "We were downtown,
and I saw a black man wearing a cowboy hat, with chaps and boots,
so I said, 'Look at that drugstore cowboy out there -
everyone knows there are no black cowboys.'"
His cousin, who was involved with the black community, explained the
man was indeed a real-life cowboy, who owned and operated a ranch
outside of town.
A place where black cowboys roamed the range - that was enough to
bring Stewart to Denver. He set up his barber business and discovered
that many of his customers had fascinating stories to tell about themselves
and their family members, who had been former slaves, adventurers,
cowboys, soldiers, homesteaders and miners. Stewart started surreptitiously
running a tape recorder during his customers' reminiscences and learning
about the way the West really was.
"When I found out that there had been black cowboys, I was upset,"
he says. "But I turned that anger into determination to finding
people I could interview to learn about the heritage."
And to pass on his knowledge.
He started collecting photographs and artifacts of the forgotten pioneers
who helped settle the West, at first seeking them out through his
customers and word-of-mouth. That personal collection is now the heart
of the Black American West Museum, which Stewart officially established
in 1975 at a local boys' school. The museum is now ensconced in a
historical building near downtown Denver which has its own unique
The building was the home of Justina Ford (1871-1952), the first black
woman physician to set up practice in Denver. Despite racial prejudice,
she delivered over 7,000 babies during her career. When her home was
scheduled for demolition in 1983, community leaders including Stewart
had the building designated a historical site and moved it to its
current location. It houses not only Stewart's fascinating memorabilia
(cowboys on the second floor, a history of black soldiers from the
Civil War and the Buffalo Soldiers who came West in the basement),
but a rotating exhibit on its first floor, and also a display of artifacts
from Ford's medical practice. The Black American West Museum celebrates
its tenth anniversary in its permanent location this year.
Stewart, who's now 70, has become a historical figure himself, and
has served as Grand Marshall of the Bill Pickett Rodeo, a black rodeo
in Denver that could not have started without his dedicated research.
He's written a book on the topic, and has been the subject of a couple
of other books. Stewart spends most days lecturing to school kids
and passing on his knowledge to future generations.
He's helped re-write long-accepted history about the West. He's found
dated photographs and journal entries that prove various black pioneers
were the first with such accomplishments as riding backwards on a
bull, or riding a buffalo. He's discovered and chronicled towns entirely
populated by black pioneers. He's assembled a long-lost roster of
black cowboy heroes that young kids could point to as role models.
As Stewart's reputation spread, he's been contacted by people who
have offered up photographs from family trunks; he's even been contacted
by children of people he interviewed decades ago, offering more information
or artifacts they've come across.
Last summer he got a call from a relative of a 100-year-old woman
he'd interviewed in 1971 about her father, who escaped from slavery
and moved to Canada, then served in the Civil War in a Minnesota regiment
before ending up in Colorado. The relative remembered Stewart's interest
in the family.
"She says, 'Paul, would you be interested in the family Bible?
That Bible had the year he was born, 1825, then mentioned when he
went into the service, the years he served, his wife's name and the
years they moved West," he says. "It's like detective work
- you keep running into material."
The sleuthing has its rewards, but Stewart says he feels most blessed
because he's living out his childhood fantasy. "Even though I've
never been a cowboy, that was one of my dreams. And now when I go
to the schools to talk to the kids, they all call me 'The Black Cowboy.'"
The Black American West Museum and Heritage Center is at 3091 California
St., Denver, CO 80205 (303) 292-2566. This article first appeared
in the April, 1996 issue of New Country Magazine.
Ever since the Beatles broke up and groups like Badfinger and the
Raspberries appeared on the scene, rock critics have been enchanted
by what has come to be called "power pop," rock rooted in
Beatlesque melodies and harmonies and Byrds-like jingle-jangle guitar.
The problem is, critics and cultists seem to be the only ones who
actually own records by Big Star, the Records, the Motors, the White
Animals, Bongos, Plimsouls, DBs, Windbreakers and the other acts that
have earned "power pop" hosannas over the years.
Sure, Crowded House and Squeeze can be heard on alternative radio.
The increasingly formulaic Smithereens have become MTV fixtures, and
Michael Penn and the Rembrandts are folkish voices (low-power pop?)
in the mix. But despite the brief flash of nostalgia which brought
us the Posies and Jellyfish, Marshall Crenshaw's last album disappeared
without a trace. Most of these artists will eventually end up mere
footnotes to rock history, as if calling anything "power-pop"
dooms it to commercial failure.
So let's not call the Cavedogs a you-know-what band.
Besides, the Cavedogs' new release rises above critics' stylistic
labeling. "Soul Martini" simply is too musically powerful
and varied to be easily pigeonholed.
Sure, the trademarks are there: chiming, grungy guitars (often super-saturated
enough to "jingle-jangle" your fillings loose), melodies
and hooks that stick in your head after one listen. But the Cavedogs'
threesome of bassist Brian Stevens, guitarist Todd Spahr and drummer
Mark Rivers are smart enough songwriters to keep their lyrics from
treacle, and they're not dogmatic about style.
The 'Dogs in fact revel in unexpected sonic twists, such as the cheeseball
organ solo and orchestral bridge (an homage to Burt Bacharach) during
"On for the Ride." But they also find comfort in nasty-assed
guitar riffs throughout songs such as the unstoppable "Murder"
and "Sorrow (Boots of Pain)," a droll commentary on black-clad
hipsters that points out that "Quadrophenia" had a lock
on teenaged angst long before the Cure.
Call "Soul Martini" first-rate, chest-pounding, foot-stomping
rock and roll. Call it catchy, call it cool, call it retro if you
Just please don't call it you-know-what.
This review originally appeared in Request magazine in 1992.
BIG HEAD TODD
AND THE MONSTERS
A Colorado band makes its declaration of independence.
Big Head Todd and the Monsters can write a how-to book on running
a band as a small business. Since 1986, the group's gained a large
and loyal regional following and released two recordings, all without
day jobs. Now, the groundswell of support -- at home in Boulder, Colorado,
and in other towns where they regularly tour, such as San Francisco,
Austin, Chicago and Minneapolis -- has led to a national buzz on the
"I guess word's getting around," drummer Brian Nevin acknowledges
with satisfaction. The trio's earned the attention the old-fashioned
way, with hard work and the unshakable confidence that comes with
The Monsters' music is a roots-rock melange of blues, country, folk
and funk, centered on Todd Park Mohr's husky vocals and limber guitar-playing,
one minute folkish strumming and delicately picked melodies and the
next a percussive flurry of notes. Nevin and bassist Rob Squires intuitively
fill the spaces between Mohr's chording with inventive melodies of
their own -- they've known each other since high school, and originally
formed the Monsters as a college frat-party band.
The Monsters' latest release, Midnight Radio (with cover art
by former Replacement Chris Mars, a fan), captures the spirit of the
band's performances, since it was recorded live to DAT. It reflects
the restlessness of the road -- the moody title track perfectly evokes
the loneliest hours of an all-night drive.
The group's sold almost 3,000 copies of Midnight Radio , and
7,000 copies of its 1989 debut, without the help of national management
or major label backing. In fact, they've regarded the industry with
indifference. "It seems to me the music scene's turned into a
rat race," says Mohr. "It's not that we're scared of being
part of the corporate system, but we're already making our payroll.
They know we're here, and if they're really serious they'll come approach
"We don't sit around saying we want to be signed by a label,"
says Squires. "We'll just keep doing what we're doing, support
the organization and build our fan base."
"You can always go for the Big Fish," adds Mohr, "
but keeping the respect of fans for something you've worked really
hard to attain, that's real work."
The Monsters already support themselves with constant touring and
record sales, so they haven't sought a major label contract. If a
deal ever comes their way, it'll have to allow for the band's do-it-yourself
This article originally appeared in Rolling Stone in 1991.
The first thing you notice at a Subdudes' performance is the crowd
of fanatic "Dudeheads" in front, writhing in ecstasy to
the music like Deadheads with rhythm. The second is the music itself,
with its not-too-distant echoes of the band's New Orleans roots, southern
soul emotion and country harmonies. Next the band: Tommy Malone's
powerful voice and nimble, understated guitar-playing; John Magnie's
equally emotive singing and adept work on keyboards and accordion;
Johnny Ray Allen's funky bass, which lays a rumbling foundation; and
Steve Amedee's thunderous drumming ... on a tambourine.
Amedee sits upon his drum riser and weilds a drumstick over a lone
tambourine perched on his knee, using his thumb to affect the sound
from a booming bass to the snap of a snare, and shaking the instrument
for cymbals' high tones. The drum switch was part of a transformation
that took the Subdudes from New Orleans to Colorado, and turned them
from an electric bar-band to the mostly-acoustic country-soul outfit
that's just released its second album, Lucky , for East-West
Lucky was recorded in New Orleans and is imbued with the town's
rhythmic pulse, but it defies typecasting. Malone, Allen and Magnie's
originals mix equal parts R&B and country, and the best of their
efforts sound like you've always known them. Al Green's "I'm
So Tired of Being Alone" emphasizes the band's soulfulness. And
the 'Dudes turn it up on the psychedelic funk of "Straight Shot,"
the hard-rock of "I Can't Wait" and the crazed R&B of
"Wide Load," with the Rebirth Brass Band lending extra sass.
Most of the album features Malone's soulful singing while the rest
chime in with harmonies that bring The Band to mind.
Like The Band, the Subdudes benefit from years together. Malone, Amedee
and Allen grew up in Edgard, Louisiana, a one-road sugar cane town
40 miles up the Mississippi River from New Orleans. "My older
brothers used to listen to a lot of soul music," says Amedee.
"David [Malone, Tommy's brother, a member of the Radiators] and
my brother had one of the first rock-and-roll bands in Edgard."
Allen, who lived across a cane field from Amedee, says, "I grew
up mostly listening to country music, until I got thirteen, and started
listening to ZZ Top and all that stuff." Malone grew up on the
Beatles. "My first band with Steve, about 70 percent of our material
was Beatles," he recalls.
The friends eventually drifted to New Orleans. Magnie, a Denver native,
also headed there, drawn by the town's rich musical heritage. The
four crossed paths but didn't all play together until the Continental
Drifters, a bar-band which started out playing original music but
ended up grinding out AOR covers. The Subdudes' name and subdued sound
came by accident; Magnie had a weekly solo gig at the famed Tipitina's,
and the other members joined in one night on acoustic instruments,
including Amedee on tambourine.
Magnie convinced the others to leave New Orleans' stifling scene and
settle in a small town an hour north of Denver. "We were ready
for some extreme change," recalls Magnie of the Big Move from
the Big Easy. "I remember having some thought like we better
get outta here before it gets ruined." From their new base, the
band started playing area clubs and the nearby ski resorts, gaining
the following that led to their self-titled 1989 debut recording for
Though the Subdudes have thrived in the Rockies, their musical heritage
often takes them back to New Orleans. In tribute to the town, Magnie
and Malone last fall ebulliently bleated out a last-minute brass chart
for "Bye Bye" on trumpet and trombone (they hadn't played
either instrument since high school). "After we rented those
instruments," says Amedee, "I was driving back to the studio,
and they were playing. We'd drive by some tourists, and they'd go,
`Oh, man! Look at what these people do in New Orleans. What a city!'"
That may be so, but sometimes, you just have to leave it to love it.
This article originally appeared in Rolling Stone in 1991.
From Grevious Angel to Infamous Angel
Iris DeMent is as plain-spoken as her music, but Infamous Angel
, DeMent's Rounder Records debut, is anything but simple. It's rich
with emotional complexity, despite its stripped-down, acoustic production.
Her influences include Kitty Wells, Emmylou Harris, Joni Mitchell,
Dylan, Aretha Franklin and Nanci Griffith. But, says DeMent, "You
take everything you know, and jumble it together into something that's
your own. Of all the music I listened to, the things that stuck with
me were the country-oriented things."
So she now finds herself singing country-music with her charmingly
unpolished, real voice. She sings instinctively, her voice
cracking and bending and pushing past notes without ever sounding
like affectations. DeMent's songs are naturals, too. Several of her
songs - "Let the Mystery Be" and "Our Town" among
them - already sound like Smoky Mountain traditionals.
DeMent, the youngest of eight children born in Arkansas and raised
in California (she now lives in Kansas City with her husband), ends
her album with three fine tributes to her Pentacostal parents. "After
You're Gone" is a moving song to her 82-year-old father, who's
seriously ill. "Mama's Opry," about 74-year-old Flora Mae
DeMent's love for country music, features Emmylou Harris on harmony.
Then Flora Mae herself takes the lead on the spiritual "Higher
Ground." DeMent half-jokes that she signed her record deal just
so her mother could live out her lifelong dream: "Rounder was
the label that said, 'yeah, you can have your mom sing a song.'"
That's the plain truth.
Pulse! magazine, 1991
THREAD: SONGS OF THE EAGLES" COMMENTARY
Listening to the new generation of young country singers pay homage
to their rock-and-roll roots in "Common Thread: The Songs of
the Eagles," I'm reminded of how well-constructed these songs
-- irrepressible '70s hits, all -- really were, even though more than
a decade of revisionist rock criticism has tried to tell us the Eagles
were fey, phoney southern California shuck-and-jive experts.
I'll buy that, to an extent, because as songwriters the Eagles werre
often painfully shallow, and their early albums are choclfull of awful
filler. But the best songs (many of them monster hits) still hold
up because they're just plain catchy, and because they capture the
breezy spirit of the time and place: Southern California in the 1970s.
Drag out the Eagles' original versions, though, instead of wasting
time on these pointless, reverential copies. The artists on this collection,
a benefit for former Eagle Don Henley's Walden Woods Project, is exactly
what's wrong with country music these days: Travis Tritt, Little Texas,
Alan Jackson, Suzy Boggus, Diamond Rio, Billy Dean, Brooks and Dunn
and more are today's heirs to the Eagles' country-rock throne, but
the difference is, between them they haven't written pop songs as
good as these 13 songs. Instead, like recording these carbon copies,
they recycle the Eagles' formula into an even more obvious formula.
What the collection reveals is that the Eagles were ahead of their
time: They merged rebel hippie attitude - these guys were the slackers
of 1971 - with the shitkicker soul of the best of country music, then
made it commercial, which in and of itself is no crime. The group's
music embodied Hank Sr. and Merle Haggard, but also Gram Parsons,
the Southern hippie who helped invent country rock in the first place,
with the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers.
What's odd, then, is that in today's rock and roll landscape, the
Eagles wouldn't even rate a speck in the sky. Sure, some of their
songs (not the ones covered on "Common Thread") are still
heard on classic rock radio, but the mere fact that these young country
kids embrace these songs so lovingly means that if the Eagles released
their 1971 debut hit, "Take It Easy" today, you'd have to
be listening to country radio to hear it.
And that, unfortunately, says more about the state of rock than the
state of country music.
Commentary read over National Public Radio station KRCC in Colorado
THE CULTURE: FROM "SUKIYAKI" TO "HAPPY SAD"
Ever since the
earliest cultural exchanges of the Meiji Restoration era in the late
1800s, Japanese have eagerly embraced all manner of Western Culture
- primarily American culture, including American popular culture,
the United States' most undervalued but farthest-reaching export.
The stereotype today is that Japanese are crazy about Western pop
from blue jeans to rockabilly music, but the exchange goes both ways.
Western culture - and especially American culture in the post-war
years - has consumed its own share of Japanese pop.
A perfect Meiji-era East-to-West example is the influence of the brilliant
colors, flat spatial design and artificial perspective of Ukiyo-e
woodblock prints and even the mass-produced elegant graphics of Japanese
wrapping paper (which is as beautiful and unique today as it was 100
years ago) on French painters working out the style that would become
known as Impressionism.
Other exports from Japan include technology and gadgetry as a kind
of pop culture, but the respect such industries have today was hard
won. Pre- and post-war industrial exports from toys to automobiles
were considered cheap and poorly made, and in fact they often were
until the concept of Western-style quality control was introduced
during the post-war Occupation years.
Cheeseball sci-fi movies like "Godzilla" and their TV versions
like "Ultraman" and the current Power Ranger craze all are
pure reflections of Japan's fascination/repulsion with nuclear energy
(which puts into context the level of protest from citizens over the
continuing French nuclear test explosions - according to Japanese
pop myth, Godzilla's gonna come bubbling up from one of those explosions).
And there's a related sci-fi field that currently is enjoying an underground
explosion in the West: Anime. From early clunky cartoons like Astro
Boy ("Atom Boy," the Japanese name, is much more explicit
about its atomic-era origins while in the U.S. the emphasis is on
space) and Gigantor ("Tetsujin Niju Hachi-Go") were stiff
early '60s precursors of today's popular anime titles like Akira.
With U.S. interest in animation in general increasing (one sign is
the new all-animation studio called Dreamworks, a partnership between
Steven Spielberg), the market is just starting to reveal itself. AnIme
is already very popular with the cutting edge of U.S. culture consumers,
and it'll surely grow in popularity and have an impact on the burgeoning
industry. The mass media are already covering its popularity; Billboard
magazine just a couple of weeks ago devoted a special section to "Japanimation."
There were also non-sci-fi cartoons like Kimba the White Lion and
Speed Racer popular in Japan during the '60s which have made their
mark on American audiences, via MTV for Speed Racer and less directly,
though I think no less significantly, through Disney's "The Lion
King" for Kimba.
(Another related, though so far not widespread cultural phenomenon
is Manga, and the wild diversity and readership scope of Japanese
comics. They're a completely different breed in many ways from American
comics, and appeal to a vastly different market, but both the adult
topics and cutting-edge graphics style is starting to impact American
design and graphics. Soon there will be a commercial breakthrough
for some manga and the floodgates will open for the medium, because
like with anime, the avant garde is already fascinated with manga.)
But for most Americans, aside from TV phenomenon like Power Rangers
or Speed Racer (which many Americans aren't even aware are Japanese
in origin), pop music is the most obvious of Japanese cultural imports,
if for no other reason than its origins can't be hidden behind wide-eyed
Because my background is as a pop music critic, the most interesting
aspect of Japan-U.S. cultural exchange is music.
The history of Japanese music breaking through the American market
is that unfortunately, when the Japanese-ness of a pop music act is
revealed, that act and its music have been treated more like a novelty
than as serious pop music (if pop music can be serious).
Good examples of this are fluke hits like "Sukiyaki," and
in the 1970s, Pink Lady. The current interest in punk and alternative
music - Shouichi Kino, Shang Shang Typhoon, Blue Hearts a few year
ago and Shonen Knife aren't really pop releases, because they have
small audiences and their reputations are often enhanced by sponsoring
"celebrities" like David Byrne of Talking Heads in the case
of Shang Shang Typhoon and Shouichi Kina, and elite punks Sonic Youth
for Shonen Knife (Sonic Youth mentioned Shonen Knife over and over
in U.S. interviews until their fans became interested in the group).
The story of "Sukiyaki" is a perfect example of how Japanese
popular culture can find a market in America, but as a novelty instead
of as a serious cultural export, or at least as a respectable cultural
export with credible staying power: Kyu Sakamoto hit number one June
15, 1963, with "Sukiyaki." (It replaced Leslie Gore's "It's
My Party" at the top of the charts.)
Sakamoto, born in Kawasaki, started playing clubs while still in high
school. He signed as a "boy-next-door" by a talent company
in 1959, and recorded for Toshiba Records. By the time "Sukiyaki"
was released in the U.S., he had 15 best-selling singles and eight
albums in Japan, and had appeared in 10 movies.
Here's the story of how the song was called "Sukiyaki" in
The song that made his reputation in America (though it would be difficult
to find any American who remembers his name) was actually called "Ue
O Muite Aruko," Louis Benjamin, the head of Britain's Pye Records
(the label that would a few years later be the first to record The
Who), was visiting Japan on business in 1962, and brought the song
back for jazzman Kenny Ball to record.
For the simple - and condescending if not somewhat racist - reason
that British radio DJs might find the Japanese title hard to pronounce,
the song was renamed "Sukiyaki," one of the few Japanese
words most Westerners were already familiar with. Unfortunately it
didn't have anything to do with the original title or the sad story
in the song, but perhaps that wasn't taken into consideration because
it was intended to be recorded as a jazz instrumental, not in its
original version. Newsweek magazine at the time described the situation
thus: "It is like releasing 'Moon River' in Japan with the title
Ball's instrumental "Sukiyaki" went to number 10 in England
in January 1963. Meanwhile in America, a DJ for station KORD in Pasco,
Washington, got hold of Sakamoto's original and found listeners liked
the song. The regional airplay caught the attention of Capitol Records,
which re-released it with the British title, again for the convenience
of radio DJs and listeners who might buy the record. It was the first
song sung in a foreign language to top the Top 100.
Country singer Clyde Beavers later recorded an English version, but
his recording wasn't successful. A new generation of U.S. pop music
fans know the song best from A Taste of Honey's 1981 release, which
reached #3 on the charts with its silky, soulful translation.
Maybe Louis Benjamin did Ryu Sakamoto a favor by changing the name
of the song to "Sukiyaki." It's possible that even though
it's a great song, Westerners wouldn't have given it a chance if they
had to stumble through its real title. But the choice of the new title
was so arbitrary that it comes across as cavalier.
Unfortunately for Japanese pop culture, the language barrier still
The story of marketing Pizzicato 5 in America is the '90s version
of the same problem - how does a record company market Japanese pop
music to an American audience notorious for its cultural ethnocentrism
without reducing the music and the artist to a novelty gimmick? The
results remain to be seen.
Atlantic Records, P5's American label, is releasing the group's latest
U.S. album, "The Sound of Music By...." this week. It's
a mix of tracks from several Japanese P5 releases, including the first
single release, "Happy Sad," a wonderfully catchy tribute
to '70s American soul music. The label did early marketing for the
song by getting it included on the soundtrack to "Unzipped,"
a documentary about New York fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi. Given
P5's focus on fashion as part of the pop experience, the song is perfect
for the film, and clips from the movie have been included in a video
now making its way onto U.S. TV screens via MTV and VH-1.
According to Michael Krumper, Atlantic Records' VP of product development,
the label will market the group not as a novelty, but as an alternative
rock and dance-club act. The label will also push P5 to pop radio,
but he agrees that may take time to accept P5's cutting-edge sound.
Still, he points out the band's previous U.S. release, "Made
in the USA" (from
last year, on an Atlantic Records subsidiary called Matador) has already
sold over 100,000 copies to a primarily underground audience. "That's
not novelty sales numbers," he told me.
The label will create some merchandise like P5 flight bags and bar
coasters. Plus, the label will allow Yasuharu Konishi and Maki Nomiya
to create a package as elaborate as their Japanese releases. That
attention to artful design and the group's extreme visual presentation
on stage as well as on CD will attract an artistic fan base, Krumper
The one thing in P5's favor is that unlike most "world music"
which is sung in languages other than English and often has musical
elements and rhythms that are unfamiliar to American consumers, P5's
music is an affectionate reflection of Konishi's favorite pop music,
mostly American soul music from the 1970s. That means U.S. listeners
will find much of P5's sound already familiar, like echoes of their
P5 also has made one major concession to the U.S. market that may
help the group catch on as something other than a novelty: Maki sings
the song almost all in English on the new album, even though it was
more in Japanese in its original version on last year's Japanese "Overdose"
The result, hopefully? Krumper says "They're totally interested
in more people hearing their music, and the popularity here has made
them more important in Japan."
That, I'll leave to you to decide.
Originally presented as a lecture at offices of the Japan National
Tourism Organization, Tokyo, October 1995
Music with a Green Spin
"I was just
thinking to myself, 'Hmmm ... things are going pretty good,'"
says Canadian singer-songwriter Ferron, chuckling as she waits at
the microphone. She was mid-song when production manager Ray Tuomey
tapped her shoulder and asked her to start again.
At most concerts, technical problems are shrugged off, and the performer
plays on. But this is no ordinary concert - it's a live recording
session for the weekly National Public Radio show "E-Town,"
and the mobile recording truck parked behind the historic Boulder
Theatre heard a glitch in the sound equipment.
With the gremlin found, Ferron counts off again. But halfway into
the song, she looks sheepishly at the E-Tones, the show's house band
playing behind her. She's forgotten the words. The audience is understanding,
though, and enthusiastically cheers for her to start over again instead
of scrapping the number altogether.
Tuomey brings out a music stand so Ferron can have the words in front
of her. "Normally I'm great, but I've got a lot on my mind,"
she says good-naturedly.
The studio audience doesn't mind the mistakes - in fact, they're part
of the appeal of attending the tapings.
They're getting a behind-the-scenes peek at how a radio variety show
is put together, including the retakes and the spontaneous moments
that make performers human. The show will be a flawless hour of great
music and thoughtful environmental information when it's aired over
120 stations across the country (including Boulder's KGNU), but in
front of its live audience, the two-hour performances add communal
warmth and goofy unpredictability, making "E-Town" more
fun to visit than just hearing it over the airwaves.
The home crowd this night also hears great news: After a tumultuous
couple of years for the facility, "E-Town" hosts Nick and
Helen Forster announced the Boulder Theatre had been purchased by
New Hope Communications, the publisher of new age and health magaginzes
whose offices are half a block away. Forster introduced New Hope's
Doug Greene, who made a heartfelt speech about the building's potential.
"I'd like to thank Helen and Nick - they were very influential
in talking me into this," he says.
Nick last year stepped in as general manager of the theater, with
"E-Town" as a principal tenant and sub-leasing it to others
like concert promoters and Big Head Todd and the Monsters, who recorded
tracks for their latest album there. He led the efforts to save the
theatre from development into a shopping mall or entertainment complex,
and helped connect the building with its buyer. New Hope sponsors
natural food industry trade shows twice a year, in Baltimore, Maryland
and Anaheim, California, where "E-Town" has taped on-the-road
programs the past two years.
So it seems appropriate for Nick to announce the sale of the theater
at an "E-Town" taping, just a couple of weeks after its
fourth birthday. The Forsters taped their pilot show of "E-Town"
on Earth Day, April 22, 1991, and shopped a demo tape to NPR just
weeks later at a convention. The network agreed to carry the program,
and the couple was off and running. During the summer they assembled
a small staff (including this writer) and planned the first season.
The first show aired that October, featuring Shawn Colvin.
"It's remarkable to have watched it evolve and go through its
various growing pains and stages," says Helen in an interview.
"I wake up every morning and I'm amazed where we are now. It's
like rolling a big buolder up a hill. At a certain point gravity starts
to help, and that's what it feels like now, like things are falling
Four years ago, "E-Town" was based in a small office in
the Forsters' backyard just a few blocks from the Boulder Theatre.
These days, it's headquartered in a downtown office. The small staff
has expanded a little, but not much. Now there are three fulltime
employees besides Nick and Helen, with a part-time development director
and two other part-timers handling the accounting and the constant
work of massaging NPR stations to add "E-Town" to their
weekly schedules. To date, 120 stations from Anchorage, Alaska to
Lafayette, Louisiana air the show.
For the first two years, "E-Town" wasn't established enough
to interest national sponsors. Now, though they still need more, the
show has four national sponsors - Standard Homepathic Company, Tom's
of Maine, Arrowhead Mills and Suncloud Sunglasses - whose banners
hang on the wall of the stage behind the E-Tones. The show also has
a cadre of local sponsors - Bank of Boulder, CareerTrack, Media Marketing,
Kinko's, Oasis Brewery, Alfalfa's Market, Hotel Boulderado and the
Daily Camera - that help out with everything from accomodations for
the show's guests to backstage food and an after-show party.
The first season, with no national sponsors and little name recognition
for the program, "E-Town" often gave away more tickets than
were sold. "These days low attendance is 300," Nick noted
before the show, an improvement from the days when "I think we
had sold 16 tickets on the day of one show. 'E-Town' has a much better
name recognition in Boulder these days, but we have some work to do."
It didn't help that early audiences seemed more interested in seeing
full concerts by the more famous visitors than checking out the up-and-coming
artists or musicians renowned in lesser-known types of music. The
theater always was packed for shows featuring star attractions like
Julian Lennon or Los Lobos; James Taylor sold out the Boulder Theatre
in record-breaking time. Other times, "E-Town" audiences
could be frustratingly thin - a shame since the shows are usually
musically terrific and sometimes thrilling no matter who's been booked,
because of Nick's stringent musical standards.
His insistence on quality has paid off in a first-rate lineup ranging
from the well-known to the obscure: Nanci Griffith, Emmy Lou Harris
and Richard Thompson to Hawaiian guitarist Keola Beamer and Austin
songwriter Jimmie Dale Gilmore.
The show's increasing national audience has made it easier to book
acts, because record companies see the marketing opportunity. These
days labels as well as booking agents and management companies call
and offer their artists for "E-Town," instead of Nick having
to, as he put it, "beg for acceptance." The Boulder Theater's
box office is lined with posters for "E-Town" tapings from
just the past few months with a diverse lineup of visitors including
Pops Staples, David Wilcox, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, the Nitty
Gritty Dirt Band, U. Utah Phillips, the Subdudes, Texas, Beausoleil,
Chris Hilllman and Paula Cole.
The music may be the hook, but the regulars who come out for "E-Town"
tapings come out week after week for the show's camaraderie - the
Forsters have managed to fabricate out of thin air a real sense of
community, something that harkens back to old-time radio's "make-believe
Audience regulars also come out knowing not to expect a typical concert
with one artist performing for an hour and a half, but a structured
performance and talk format that only allows several songs from each
musical guest. The fans get their money's worth - most shows cost
$7 - in the intimate and relaxed performances, and the spoken word
segments, which was part of the show's appeal to NPR. The spoken portions
of the show include an E-Chievement Awards segment, where listeners
nominate environmental do-gooders who are interviewed (sometimes by
phone) by Nick on-air.
After Ferron's first appearance on stage, Nick interviews this week's
E-chievement winner, John Beale, a Seattle activist who began a successful
campaign to save a creek by dragging junk out of it himself. The interview
is conducted via phone, with the audience listening to Beale over
the house sound system. In the background, keyboardist Ron Jolly plays
a steady, wandering accompaniment on piano.
The various portions of the show are woven together by the musical
segues provided by the E-Tones. These days the band consists of Jolly,
Chris Engleman on bass, Steve Ivey on drums and Nick on guitar. This
night Denver-based studio pro and wunderkind Kirwan Brown is sitting
in for Engleman. The band rocks, especially Ivey, who's a metronomic
The next musical segment is Sonny Landreth, the New Orleans-based
singer-songwriter and guitar whiz who was a regular for years at the
Hotel Boulderado. He's also practically a regular on "E-Town,"
having visited several times including that first "E-Town"
pilot in 1991. He sings "South of I-10" with the E-Tones
rocking out behind him, and Helen and Nick helping out on harmonies.
The musicians break for a few minutes, as Nick interviews Dr. Bob
Rountree, an expert on herbal pharmocology, about a new book he co-authored,
"Smart Medicine for a Healthier Child." Like the musical
mix, "E-Town" has given exposure to a variety of styles
and views in its interview segments. The guests have ranged from the
expected scientists and activists to artists and authors, "green"
entrepreneurs, authors and politicians.
Along with national sponsors and easier access to musicians, "E-Town"'s
growing national audience has made it easier to book guests for the
show's spoken-word segments. "Like the music, (the environmental
side) has evolved, and we've set up good networks with publishers.
When Dave Barry was coming through town, his publisher called us and
said they'd love to have him on the show," Helen says.
Though the talk-radio part of "E-Town" is intrinsic to its
spirit, it's undeniably the music that's the star attraction, especially
when you're in the Boulder Theatre audience.
Ferron's next turn on stage not only goes flawlessly, it's one of
those magical performances that make the live "E-Town" experience
transcendant. She sings "Sunshine," a song available on
a new album, "Hand in Hand," of songs about parenthood over
the years by artists ranging from Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne
to Yoko Ono, John Lennon and the Pretenders.
The powerful song, sung from the point of view of a dying elderly
woman telling her daughter goodbye, has Ferron - and many in the audience
- wiping away tears. Even Nick seems stunned by the emotional moment,
until Ferron prompts him. "Well?" she says, after the applause
subsides, hoping an interview question might help her regain her composure.
It does, and she plays her next song flawlessly. Now it's Landreth's
turn to suffer a mid-song interruption. During a solo acoustic blues
number, an amp behind him makes a sound noticed out in that pesky,
perfectionist recording truck.
"Man, I knew that was gonna happen to me," Landreth says
as the audience applauds at the chance to hear his playing again.
Before the next song, an electric number with the full band, he jokes
to the audience, "I'm only gonna start if it counts."
By the end of the show, he's also played two New Orleans-spiced rockers,
"Bayou Teche" and "Congo Square." There's more
than enough music for Helen to edit down to one show's worth.
After an encore (a Cajun-style Ferron original instead of the usual
traditional singalong folksong), Nick sends the audience home with
a reminder of his earlier announcement: "Thank you for coming
out to the newly-rescued Boulder Theater."
Now, that's worth hearing live, instead of over the radio.
Before I left
Colorado Springs for the "1995 Japan-America Grassroots Summit,"
sponsored by the Manjiro Society for International Exchange, I half-expected
the trip to be an elaborate package tour. Nobody could explain to
me what happened at the summit. Would there be panel discussions?
Lectures? Historical presentations? Or would it be sightseeing?
It turned out to be all of the above.
And more: Attendance at the summit also included two nights of homestay
with a Japanese family. The homestay is what makes the summit truly
"Grassroots." After attending the summit Oct. 28-Nov. 6,
the American participants - there were about 200, with several dozen
from Colorado - came home with a better understanding of how Japanese
live their day-to-day lives.
The one-on-one familiarity that comes from understanding seemed more
crucial this year than at any time since the end of World War II.
The 50th anniversary of the war added an emotional edge to already
tense relations between the two countries, including controversies
on both sides over the 50th anniversary commemorations of the war,
difficult trade negotiations and the public protests against U.S.
bases in Okinawa following the alleged rape of an Okinawan teenager
by American servicemen. The homestay segment of the summit bridged
the gap and reminded us that behind national differences are plenty
of individual similarities.
I had been invited on the trip at the Japanese government's expense
along with several other delegates including Colorado Springs Mayor
Bob Isaacs for a preview of the event, because the Manjiro Society,
a non-profit organization based in McLean, Virginia, alternates the
event between Japan and America, and next year's summit is planned
for Oct. 2-7, 1996 in Colorado Springs.
This year's summit took place in Kagoshima, a beautiful port city
at the southern end of Kyushu that has as its centerpiece Sakurajima,
a live and smoking volcano in its bay.
Because of Sakurajima's majesty, I had decided on a homestay in Kagoshima
to get to know the city and its volcano better. Attendees chose in
advance from ten regional homestay locations, including remote villages
such as Wadomari, on Okinoerabu Island two hours' flight from Kagoshima,
and Nishinoomote City on Tanegashima Island (the headquarters for
Japan's space program).
One reason it's hard to describe the summit is that much of its programming
structure depends on where you spend your homestay. This summit opened
with an afternoon of welcome speeches in Tokyo, but after one day
of cultural performances (traditional music and dance and a tea ceremony)
and history lectures in Kagoshima, the attendees split into small
groups according to their homestay locations. For the next two days,
each locale planned its own agenda, from loosely structured sightseeing
to pretty serious panel discussions.
The Kagoshima homestay group spent the first day meeting with the
city's mayor (Mayor Isaacs of the Springs exchanged gifts) and lunching
at City Hall; sitting through more history lessons, which are enlightening
but a burden to endure during such an otherwise exciting experience;
and a brief but beautiful traditional dance performance at a reception
where we met our hosts for the next two nights.
Then the eight of us in the Kagoshima group went off with our homestay
families for our unique one-on-one experiences.
Not everyone got a real-life look at daily Japanese living, though:
Jeff Brown, a Colorado Springs art teacher who had his homestay in
Wadomari, had a wonderful time. But he was treated like a visiting
dignitary, and villagers dressed their best to come visit him and
take his picture. He didn't get an accurate view of those villagers'
lives. And though accurate, some Americans got to see a privileged
view of Japanese life, because they were assigned to wealthy homestay
families and showered with extravagant gifts.
Luckily, my homestay was with an unusually large (for Japan) family
that doesn't live extravagantly and didn't treat me like a curiosity.
Mr. and Mrs. Yamashita have eight kids who range from 7 to 23 in age.
Tsutomu Yamashita is a professor at the local technical college who
works the long hours typical of Japanese employees; I didn't get to
spend much time with him. Sayoko-san, my 51-year-old homestay "mother,"
is a housewife who volunteers with the local traditional dance troupe.
She's a progressive woman who often invites foreigners to stay with
her family, to expose her children to people from other cultures.
She speaks close to fluent English, as opposed to my stumbling Japanese.
She used to run a restaurant in Kagoshima, and dreams of selling her
local specialty, a deep-fried, meat-filled potato dumpling called
Caroke, in an American fast-food chain.
We spoke and shared ideas and knowledge for the next two days about
the education system in Japan (she thinks it asks too much of her
children); about racism; about the difference between Japanese and
American work ethics; about things that affect our lives, not just
She took me to the 120-year-old local elementary school where her
youngest children walk to classes every day; the local hospital, where
her older son Shinya was having his sore throat investigated by a
doctor (the prognosis: didn't want to go to school); and Kagoshima's
downtown entertainment district, where hundreds of bars with tiny,
discreet square signs attract the working population after office
hours. I slept on the floor on a futon; used their Japanese-style
furo; I ate sukiyaki communally with the family.
Somewhere in between the talking and eating, we also squeezed in a
lot of sightseeing, including a breathtaking ferry ride and drive
halfway up Sakurajima's smoking spout (the first night in Kagoshima
it erupted a fountain of ash that forced contacts-wearers to put on
their glasses). We also visited the mountainous area around Kirishima,
a hot springs resort north of Kagoshima; and the local botanical gardens,
where a Chrysanthemum Festival was being held.
I also did my best to have a cultural exchange at the most basic level:
I ate as much Japanese food as I could, from the udon noodles to a
local rice-dumpling snack specialty called "Jambo," and
of course I had the freshest sushi I had tasted in my life.
The climactic moment of the trip came at the end of the homestay,
when all the American participants gathered back in downtown Kagoshima
to join in an annual street festival parade. We were given short festive
"hapi" coats to wear, and instructed to watch the Japanese
around us for cues.
And the sweetest moment was later that same night, when the Colorado
delegation, including members of the Japan-America Society of Colorado,
gathered at the dock after a ferry-boat farewell party and began singing
"Moonlight Over Colorado" amidst the tearful farewells,
as an invitation to the 1996 Manjiro Summit in Colorado Springs.
But the most lasting moment will be the one when I first stepped into
Sayoko Yamashita and her family's doorway and saw a crudely-drawn
sign with a Japanese and United States flag crossed, and the words
"Welcome Gilbert" written across it. The sentiment was sincere,
and for the first time since I was in Japan, I truly felt welcome
I only hope I can do the same for the Japanese visitors next year.
Rocky Mountain Jiho, a Japanese-English newspaper in Denver, Colorado,