Friday, August 27, 2010

My friend Van, who loves Elvis even more than I do, rest in peace

I'm beginning to tire of writing tributes to fallen (local) musical giants. I know that came out bad. I'm shocked and heartbroken over the passing of a Champaign Urbana legend, Van Montgomery Cagle. Maybe I'm getting to be that age where I have to accept that more of my friends are leaving us, but still. I don't have to like it.

Except for fronting a great art rock band in the early 80s for a single song (the band, Mode Zero, broke up shortly after they'd made their point, the song "Punks For God" is immortalized on You Tube somewhere), Van wasn't a musician, but everybody in the music community in Central Illinois knew him, and loved him. And I can tell you why.

Anybody who reads this blog with some regularity knows that I seperate the world into two different camps: those for whom music is simply wallpaper in their lives, and those for whom music is a visceral, crucial life giving force that we cannot live without. Duh, of course, Van fell into the second group, but he didn't just love music and the culture surrounding it. He studied it. He knowledge of it was encyclopedic. He was brilliant enough to string it all together in his (pretty much treatse), "Reconstructing Pop/Subculture: Art, Rock, and Andy Warhol." If it sounds like somebody's PhD dissertation, well, it's written with that same level of academic rigor.

But he was no ivory tower academic. He was a part of the scene, he went to shows, he hung out with the bands, he managed bands,he wrote and wrote and wrote about the music, the people who made the music, the art that inspired the music, the culture that nurtured the music. Van loved punk. Van loved glam. Van loved Elvis. (Oh, how he loved Elvis.) Van loved music. And he could have a conversation about it that was just as plebian as you wanted it to be, or as highfalutin as you needed it to be, but nowhere along that line could you ever believe that we was talking down or up to you. And because of that, he legitimized our love for all things music, art, and the pop culture that brought it together, he validated that this wasn't just some crazy obsession, but that life giving force that makes it possible for those of us who need more than wallpaper to wake up each day. That's why we loved him. Oh, did I mention (as many will) what a sharp dresser he was? Did I mention how wonderfully witty and fun a conversationalist he was? Did I mention that he had one of the kindest hearts I've ever come across? Did I mention was a genuinely sweet soul he was? All of these. All of these are reasons why we loved him.

I actually didn't know him well 30 years ago in Champaign-Urbana. He'd written a brilliantly funny and touching short story about a road trip to Graceland that was published in the Psychedelic Boneyard, a fanzine I helped edit. We didn't touch his piece. It warranted no editing whatsoever. It was perfect. I'm going to dig it up and scan it in, because to this day, I still think of that wonderful piece when I think of him. But I didn't know him well then. I just knew his words. Rather, I reconnected with him via the Vertebrats reunions, and via Facebook. That's when I realized what a gift having him in one's life was. He was constantly turning his friends on to great little tidbits of art and music, you could feel that love and that gift jumping off the page every time he posted.

Two days ago, he'd posted a link to a beautiful version of Lou Reed's "Perfect Day" performed by a variety of artists. I reposted it, bragging to my own FB friends that I knew such a person who "finds the best stuff." I had said, "My friend Van, who loves Elvis even more than I do, finds the best stuff." He'd even posted back, "Thanks for the compliment". Later that evening, according to his beloved sister, Libby, he died peacefully in his sleep. That song and version choked me up when it was just a cheerful exchange and joy of finding and sharing a beautiful piece of music and art. Now it leaves me flat out crying. We loved him because he understood what we loved and he shared -- and most importantly validated -- that love.

Catching up IV: Monarchs and the Moon

No, I wasn't at Chill this past Tuesday with all the cool kids. I'm sure Decibully was wonderful (I still need to catch them) and I'll bet Juniper Tar has really come into their own (I promised I'd catch them again after they underwhelmed me three years ago on a dingy night, mismatched with the Deer Lick). But no. Tuesday night was the summer night when moonrise is the same time as sunset, and the best place to catch this is out by the old County Grounds, where they have a party to celebrate this fact, and plug conservation of the Monarch Trail.

We'd had dinner at the Genghis Khan Mongolian Barbeque, and boy, has that place slipped. I used to say, it's the kind of place where if you don't like what you got, it's your own damn fault (because you pick out the meat, veggies and toppings), but still. It took forever to get the attention of the grill guys, and they didn't exactly clean the grill off between dishes, so Sammy's bowl had a ridiculous (for him) amount of hot chilis, and mine seemed like not enough. Quite a contrast to the BD's in Bayshore. Oh well, this is what happens when you name your restaurant after a brutal murdering dictator.

I'm still blown away that for whatever reason, the Monarch butterflies choose the spot at the intersection of Hwy 45 and Watertown Plank road as a layover for their migration from Canada to California. Why there? OK, there's a pile of milkweed, but still. Why not, say, I dunno, Burlington? Whatever. The fact that they do makes it a special place, and the sunset/moonrise a special time, and the fact that it's one of the highest points in the county (not to mention north enough of downtown) to be able to see both east and west horizons so that one can enjoy both moonrise and sunset almost makes it the center of the universe, if only for a few moments.

Catching Up III: August Music Roundup

Red Hot Chili Pipers
Originally uploaded by V'ron
Oh, I did go to see some shows; all outdoor, all relatively child friendly. First up with a night with the Liam Ford band, who get better and better every time, at Chill on the Hill, a perfect venue for them. They're really working a corwd well, and they had finally won me over earlier this year when the turned songs like "I Can Help" and even "We'll Meet Again Some Sunny Day" into what sounded like rockabilly standards. A week later, the Five Card Studs rocked the Hill, but this is a savvy Bay View crowd that seemed to be onto them. So that's why they were able to let loose and go over the top. Cesar Palace even let his alter ego (a metal loving alter ego at that) slip a few high pitched screams toward the end of the night that were worthy of Ronnie James Dio comparaisons -- but somehow he managed to keep them in the lounge lizard context that the Studs have gotten down to a science. The Studs continue to include their progeny in their shows assuring us all that there will be studly action for years to come.
Finally, the kids and I ventured out to Tosa Tonight to catch the Red Hot Chili Pipers before their many Irish Fest Gigs. This is a band that claims more of a bagpipe rock, but they really do encompass many musical styles. The medley of Smoke On the Water (that merges into Thunderstruck -- really, once you've heard it, it seems perfecly natural to play Thunderstruck on the bagpipes) opens the show, but they actually approach jazz, rock, and others with traditional bagpipes, drumline style snare, and other instruments I admit I don't know the names of. I think they sell the "rock" part because, well, that's what sells, but they're just really versitile musicians who don't deny their celtic roots, but aren't trapped by them, either. Oh, and they're tight as all hell. Not one note out of place, almost too perfect. But they're fun as heck, and they work their butts off to make sure that people have a good time. We sure did, and as I've mentioned before, the whole celtic thing isn't usually my cup of tea, but this was a concept i wanted to see to believe, and I'm glad I did.

Catching Up II: State Fair to Good

Where's George Clinton?
Originally uploaded by V'ron
I love State Fair, but I dunno. Things seemed lame this year. Maybe it was because we'd gone to Six Flags a few weeks beforehand and the kids were underwhelmed by the rides, but I was left with a certain amount of lameness this year. The rides seemed way shorter. And lamer. We'd gotten on the Himalaya and Stella rode alone and Sammy rode with me. Stella turned around and asked me, "Does this seem slower than usual?" Before i answered, I noticed that Sammy was NOT slammed into me from g-force (which he normally would be) and I answered "We shouldn't even be able to have this conversation for Pete's sake."

Half the barns were closed, so we got scant chance to see farm animals and chat with their owners. I'm not shocked by ANYTHING on a stick anymore, and even bad typos don't make me laugh the way they used to. Maybe it all started on the first day of State Fair, where I'd read in the paper that the sky glider broke down and that set the tone. Even the chocolate covered bacon on a stick had lost its luster. However, the kids enjoyed the Starship Ride -- a spin-you-round thing that looked like George Clinton and Bootsy Collins were going to step out of any time.

The saving grace was walking past the Cousins stage and noticing that Robert Gordon and Slim Jim Phantom were playing at 9 pm. How did we miss this in our programme? So we stopped by the former Shakey's pizza tent to share a few beers with The Florida yard Dogs, a NOLA style band that puts smiles on our faces every year, and wandered over to the Cousins stage, to a disapointly small crowd to see a pair of (albeit 80s, not original 50s) rockabilly legends serve up the standards. Gordon still has his rich, could've been country voice, and he still can sing those songs with all the genteel class he always had. His backup band (with the Stray Cats' Phantom) was tight and yet rockabilly loose. I snapped a few pictures, and was really sad to see the small crowd. OK, it was a Sunday night, OK, the weather was kind of dreary, but still. We bought some cream puffs, ceremoniously ate them (I think you get ticketed if you go to State Fair and not eat a cream puff) and dragged our exhausted behinds to our car. 2011 State Fair has got to be better than this.

Catching Up I: Snooze at the Zoo

Setting up the tent
Originally uploaded by V'ron
OK, time to catch up with August entries. And first off, the kids and I did something we've been wanting to do for years -- the annual "Snooze at the Zoo" event. You sing up way back in April, hope to god you get good weather in August, and then you camp out at the Zoo. It's a lovely fundraiser for the zoo -- but I was hoping for a little more noisy activity.

They put you round Lake Evinrude, probably for precisely that reason -- you're far enough away from the really noisy critters so that little ones don't get freaked out. But that didn't stop the blowhard two tents away who thought it was fun and clever to scare the piss out of his kids by growling at them (causing their screams... at 10:30 at night). Still, it was a cool event. There's nothing like waking up at sunrise and walking over to the bear cave and see them getting up too.

Plus, you do get to see behavior shortly after closing you don't normally get to see: in this case, we got to check out kangaroos, at least four of them, with baby joeys in their pockets. I usually never see this. They're just usually hanging out in the yard, not even bouncing around.

But the coolest part hs been a recent addition to the zoo -- The Language of Conversation, a project to permanently install poetry tucked into nooks and cranniesthroughout the zoo. I haven't seen them all yet, but the poets range from Frost and Whitman types (of course) to native american chants, all about animals and the land we share with them. Its worth it just to look for the poetry amongst the life.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Fairweather blogger

Fairweather Friends
Originally uploaded by V'ron
Remember when I used to blog at least weekly, if not more often? Now i can just about squeeze out the time to bog once a month. It's those kids, I tell ya. They're keeping me busy, and at this time intheir lives, I'm happy about it. It's been T-Ball season and what kind of mom would I be if I wasn't out there cheering on my buddy? And T-Ball, at least the Milwaukee Recreation version of it, is a fairly sweet game. They really don't have outs, everybody bats, last batter gets to sweep them all off the bases. They're 4-6 year olds, for pete's sake. When you watch, especially the 4 year olds, that's when you realize just how complicated baseball is. If the kids get the point that they're supposed to hit the ball, run to first before the ball gets there, and place nicely as a team together, it's been a good summer. And it was.
But that's taken up my Tuesday and Thursday nights, and the husband has been playing out a lot with Dr Chow, which means either pay a sitter or hang out at home or some other child friendly place on weekends. So I haven't seen as many bands as I'd like to. Instead, there was a Six Flags trip shoved into the month, numerous trips to the South Shore Farmers' market, a couple of stops to places like the Zoo and such. At least at the Zoo, it was one of those "Sunset Zoofari" nights so while we once again got to visit all sorts of wild animals, we also got to take in those musical animals, the Five Card Studs, who, like many of the other animals there, were removed from their natuaral habitat (in their case, swingin' singles lounges.) Nevertheless, they adapted. In a family friendly way, mimicking some of the newborns at the zoo, Cesar Palace brought up his own progeny, the younger Buckingham Palace, for a few songs, while encouraging the other kids to "Scream, Children, SCREAM." Being kids, they gleefully complied. It was a great night at the zoo.

And also, Chill on the Hill is really kicking in for me. Tuesday nights, up until last week, were T-Ball nights, but frankly, Chill's lineup didn't start to excite me until last week anyway. We got there too late for the Band of South Shore (a marching band ensemble from no school in particular, just kids from all over the South Shore area), and I'm sad about that, but I was just getting over this nasty stomach bug.

Speaking of bugs, what's up with the seemingly atomic mosquito invasion? But I digress.

Some folksinger chick who totally bored me and the kids was up next, but she did so some nice youth-oriented things (with a bunch of African-American youth who pretty much saved her act with their energy and enthusiasm), but I was too busy saying hello to people I haven't seen all summer to really pay attention. I told you, this whole raising kids thing has really cramped my style as a local music blogger. But then the band i came to see, the Bikiki Beachcombers, turned up onstage, along with their newest members, Damian and Betty Blexrud-Strigens a music power couple that violates my theory that married couples should never be in a band together. Somehow, they make their projects together work and that observation is displayed with Beachcombers: Damian thumps away in chararastic understated proficiency on the bass, and Betty lends her perfect voice to bring you to a paradise in Honolulu. The rest of the band is having a perfectly good time nailing down this schtick, which was great for the hour or so they were on stage, and their hula dancer, Lady Poi, helped lots of little ones get the basics of the hula. They're a fun novelty band that's really carving out a niche, and i can listen to them for about an hour before I really need something like a good punk band.

Which "Rockerbox, the annual Riverwest-based cycle festival (that's a biker event for the rest of us, not just the corporate-sponsored Harleyfests we normally get) promised to deliver. Another blogger pointed out that Rockerbox's music would be a lot deeper than the usual Steppenwolf/George Thorogood rock that you normally get at these fests and that's what I like. Of course, with all the fun kid stuff I did this month (including another visit to Pere Marquette Park to see the Wizard of Oz on the big screen, accompanied with more of those atomic mosquitoes), I had about enough time/energy to catch one band, and that band was the Fairweather Friends.

Dusty Medical Records ran the single music stage, and from what I could tell, it rocked all day. Fairweather Friends is a relatively new outfit (they debuted at the Circle A earlier this month with another recent find/favorite, Drugs Dragons) and they drew me in quickly. Great garage with two, count 'em two, keyboardists -- one on a rhodes, and othe other one what looked to be a farfisa (or at least something of that same cheap quality), to ensure a true garage sound underneath classic garage guitar playing. A lead singer who had the perfect rasp underneath his bluesy delivery and the aforementioned guitarist who also doubled as a vocal duet (he was more prominent than just a backup singer). They ahd it all -- good ballads, rocken anthems, teen-angst wailing, great classic melodies that swung back and forth. I've already "liked" them on Facebook so that I can make sure I catch them again, if I get time.

At least I got to see a few other of the Rockerbox bands via videos that people posted. Holy Sch!t (name spelled wrong to get through some internet filters) apparently turned in a tight punk set, and I'll be hunting for others. But for now, I guess I'm a bit of a fairweather blogger until I get some more energy and time. In the meantime, I'm hoping that the weather clears up for my planned excursion to that most unpretentious of Milwaukee events, State Fair. I've already waxed poetic about how i love State Fair. It's exactly what it is, and it doesn't try to be more. It doesn't claim it's the "Worlds Biggest Music Festival" even though it gets some bands and sometimes something worth going to see. No, it's rides, food on a stick, mediocre and (sometimes really good) cover, tribute, and rehashed bands, animals, smells, and, well, it's a State Fair. Watching the radar to see if the rain lets up, and packing another bottle of DEET in my purse.