God Bless B.B. King

May 16, 2015


A great talent and a great human being moved on to somewhere else this past Thursday. We knew this day would come eventually, yet B.B. King’s passing nonetheless leaves a huge hole in our hearts.

You could pick out dozens, hundreds, perhaps even thousands of memorable performances (the man toured almost constantly, playing more than 300 dates a year into his 80s), and I wouldn’t even try to pick out The One. I first heard his music when I bought his 1970 album, “Indianola, Mississippi Seeds,” his 18th studio album, and even today, all I need to do is hear that aching piano (that’s him playing) that opens the album with “Nobody Loves Me But My Mother,” or the swelling strings swinging into “Ain’t Gonna Worry My Life Anymore” and I can feel my spirit lift.

His playing could be fiery or sweet or bone-chillingly sad, and it was unfailingly brilliant. You could hear songs like his signature tune “How Blue Can You Get” over and over and they would never sound like he was going through the motions.

I only heard him live a couple of times, but I did get the chance to interview him for my radio program back in 1981 when he came to Burlington, Vt. He played the Flynn theater, and we talked a little before the show. He was every inch a gentleman and quite funny. Later, he led us around the corner to Hunt’s, the legendary Burlington music club, where he walked in around midnight and took the stage next to Big Joe Burrell, who had been one of his sidemen. What a night.

There are touching eulogies all over. Here are a few:

From Bonnie Raitt – http://www.rollingstone.com/music/features/bonnie-raitt-on-b-b-king-he-was-a-god-20150516

NPR – http://www.npr.org/sections/therecord/2015/05/15/406969376/b-b-king-and-the-majesty-of-the-blues

Rolling Stone – http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/b-b-king-blues-legend-dead-at-89-20150515

NY Times – http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/16/arts/music/b-b-king-blues-singer-dies-at-89.html?_r=0

And an interview on PBS:


For myself, I will just recommend listening to the album he thought was his most significant artistic achievement:

Love, Peace, and Deepest Thanks for all you gave us, Mr. King.


Listening to the Grateful Dead, and to America

May 5, 2015


50 years ago today, the Warlocks, later to become the Grateful Dead, play their first gig together at Magoo’s Pizza Parlor, 639 Santa Cruz Avenue, Menlo Park.

Much has been written about this band, and know up front I’m a Deadhead (how would I know about today if I wasn’t, right?). It’s fashionable to look askance or even down on the Dead and the entire hippie ethos as a bunch of woozy stoners, but that’s far off the mark. The Dead were serious and careful about their art, but they also had that spark-of-genius spontenaity that drove some of their best performances. This is a band that, while tight with one another, would come onstage in their early years without a set list. They’d start to play and follow the moment, and their musicianship (okay, they couldn’t sing all that well, but most rock bands wouldn’t have cut it at La Scala, either) would carry them along.

More importantly, if you actually listened, you realized you were listening to America. The Dead’s music melded blues, jazz, Tin Pan Alley, bluegrass, country, and rock ‘n’ roll into a sound that is unmistakeable. They also had the kind of optimistic, try-anything energy that, wrapped around around the music itself produced the stuff of legends, Walt Whitman with electric guitars.

Sometimes, they’d miss the mark. Every band has off nights. But when they were on, as they were far more often than not, they were incandescent, transcendent. Moreover, that feeling didn’t stay onstage; it poured over and through the audience.

I remember seeing them live in Maine in 1980, and just before they came onstage, some guys were pushing and shoving to get to the front, and two of them looked like they were about to come to blows. A young woman just in front of them turned and smiled and said, “hey, this is a Grateful Dead concert.” The two guys looked at each other and kinda went, “yeah, she’s right,” and that was the end of it.

As for looking down on hippies, well, despite all the stumbling and wrong turns, I’ll take that vision over a whole lot else I’ve come across these 60+ years. If we didn’t completely succeed, perhaps that’s because we were outnumbered by people who didn’t want to try to get past where they were. But the vision keeps popping up, sometimes when we need it most, as with the whole Occupy movement, that ragtag gaggle that got the world talking about economic inequality. It’s always too soon to give up hope, and that’s what it was about in the first place.

Thanks, Dead, for everything. The road goes ever on . . .


April 19, 1943 . . . Albert Hofman Rides Home on His Bike

April 19, 2015

On this day, Albert Hofman has humanity’s first intentional LSD experience. Three days previously, he had accidentally ingested some and reported:

“[A]ffected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness. At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated[-]like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away.”

On the 19th, he swallowed 250 micrograms, which would become considered the classic dose, and began to feel the effects while riding home on his bike.

On his 100th birthday, Hofman, reminiscing, said:

“It gave me an inner joy, an open mindedness, a gratefulness, open eyes and an internal sensitivity for the miracles of creation. […] I think that in human evolution it has never been as necessary to have this substance LSD. It is just a tool to turn us into what we are supposed to be.”

Imagine what the ride might have been like, with no real reference for what was happening to him. A team of animators did: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HBOPFWmZCdM


The First Three Bass Notes Hooked Me on Reggae for Life

April 11, 2015

“Lively Up Yourself” – Bob Marley and the Wailers.


Spring At Last . . .

April 11, 2015



The Civil War Ended 150 Years Ago Today, but the Fighting Didn’t

April 10, 2015


William Faulkner famously observed, in “Requiem for a Nun,” that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

So it is with the legacy of the Civil War and the South, where the stars and bars are still waved proudly.

Read Dr. David Blight’s essay in the Atlantic. Then follow that with Dr. Eric Foner’s NYT essay, Why Reconstruction Matters. You will get a sense of a nation still in many ways divided, and then reflect on what one author described as the “Dixification” of our politics and how profoundly that has affected our lives.

Looking back, I think it could be said that John Wilkes Booth did as much as any one man to change the course of American history, and for the worse.


I Cut My American Lit Class That Night to Watch Hank Aaron

April 8, 2015

April 8th, 1974. In the fourth inning during Atlanta’s home opener against the Dodgers, pitcher Al Downing tried to get a 1-0 fastball by Hank Aaron. No such luck. Aaron launched it into left center and broke Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record with number 715.


As Aaron closed in Ruth’s record, racist hate mail and death threats began coming in daily. The FBI monitored his mail. One letter read, “Will I sneak a rifle into the upper deck or a .45 in the bleachers? I don’t know yet. But you know you will die unless you retire!” Another promised, “My gun is watching your every black move. This is no joke.”

In Aaron’s hometown of Mobile, Alabama, his parents received harassing phone calls. Kidnapping threats were made against his daughter, a college student in Tennessee. An off-duty Atlanta police officer was assigned as his personal bodyguard. The Atlanta Journal prepared Aaron’s obituary in case it had to be run at short notice.

“It should have been the most enjoyable time in my life,” Aaron wrote in his autobiography, “and instead it was hell.”

Aaron used the hate mail as a motivator. He had begun his career in the Negro Leagues and joined the Braves only seven years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. He wrote in his autobiography that he was driven by “the sense of doing something for my race.” He believed the best way to honor Robinson’s legacy “was to become the all-time home run champion in the history of the game that had kept out black people for more than sixty years.”

Well done, Mr. Aaron.



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