My Obsessions (Ain’t What They Used To Be)

Art by ATELIER DAYNÈS; PHOTOGRAPH: S. ENTRESSANGLE

Friendship is one of the things I appreciate a lot at this point in my life. Don’t ask me why, but for some reason I have more strong friendships now, in the way-past-my-prime years, than I did in my younger days, which were back when Neanderthals were disappearing fast from the face of the Earth. Ah, the Neanderthals. I was real, real sorry to see them go. They kept to themselves for the most part, sure, but they were good people. They had hearts of gold. I mean, they’d share their last hunk of fire-roasted, olive oil-infused wooly mammoth meat with you if you were hungry. Or give you pots of pigments, whatever colors you needed to finish your cave paintings. What the hell can you say? Times change.

Anyway, fast-forwarding through many millennia, I was at dinner recently with two of my great pals, Mike and Jeff, guys I used to work with. We hook up for meals, and sometimes for concerts and other stuff, on a regular basis. We get along swimmingly.

We were at a tavern in a tony section of Philadelphia, downing beers and pretty good food and yapping about the usual. Donald Trump, cute girls, movies, television, travel and sports, for instance. We detest the first subject on that list and plenty like all the others. The conversation turned to baseball. Aware that the local team had lost a ton of games recently, I genteelly said to Mike and Jeff: “What the f**k’s wrong with the Phillies this year? They’re f**king awful!”

“Right,” said Mike, “I was talking for an hour about exactly that with a group of guys this morning.”

But I couldn’t go into great detail about the Phillies’ situation, because I barely knew what was happening with the team. I had no idea which Phillies were stinking up the ball field and which, if any, were playing decently. That’s the way I am these days when it comes to sports. I keep up with certain athletics a bit in the newspaper, watch a few minutes of some games on the boob tube now and then . . . and that’s about it. I still like sports, sort of, but my interest is almost nothing compared to what it was in the 1960s and 70s and much of the 80s. In those years I ingested sports voraciously, in person, on television and by reading about them. And it wasn’t only the most popular games — baseball, football and basketball — that I followed. I was into tennis, golf, track and field, boxing, bowling . . . there wasn’t much I didn’t invest countless hours keeping up with.

But those days are long gone. Starting in the late 80s I began to experience déjà vu whenever tuning in to a game. “I’ve seen all of this before,” I would think to myself. “Like, eighty thousand times before.” Which was very, very true. And so my interest in sports started its what I imagine to be predestined decline. By the time I met Sandy, my wife, in 1990, I wasn’t all that big a sports fan anymore. That’s lucky for me because she’d have bid a quick adieu to anyone obsessed with sporting affairs. And I totally understand that viewpoint. These days I too don’t enjoy spending much time with anyone who is magnificently hung up on and consumed by sports. Or by any other subject, for that matter.

Such as music. Some people who have known me for years still think of me as a total music nut. Well, music is a big interest of mine, as the pages of this blog prove. But I’m one-fifth the music guy that once I was. Where I used to make a startling effort to follow what was going on in rock, jazz, blues, singer-songwriter, reggae, Americana and you-name-it genres of music, no longer do I behave that way. My effort these days is limited, not startling. And I’m much the happier for it. Now I have loads of time to spend on more important activities, such as trying to devise innovative afternoon-napping systems that will benefit mankind immeasurably by invigorating the human spirit as never before. Such work, I’m quite confident, will prove to be my most important and lasting legacy.

Still, music is wondrous. And, unlike sports, I couldn’t live without it. Or live without writing about it. And that’s what I’m about to do. You see, one morning last month I heard a song on WXPN, the University of Pennsylvania’s crackerjack radio station, that instantly blew me away. The song made my ears stand up, and then it carried me from the bathroom in which I was brushing my teeth to cosmic pastures. The date, I’m fairly sure, was April 24, two days after the band called The War On Drugs released Thinking Of A Place.

Now, I don’t know much about The War On Drugs, further proof of the enormous diminution of my once-obsession with music. I’ve never delved into their music. What I do know is that they are based in Philadelphia, the city I live near, and that they are a big name and also quite popular in the rock music world. Their most recent album, Lost In The Dream, came out in 2014. Thinking Of A Place, a sweeping, calming and improbably long (11 minutes and 12 seconds) song, is the first new material the band has released since then.

WXPN is pretty obsessed with Thinking Of A Place, and I am too. Despite its length, the station has been playing it once or more on most days. And though I don’t listen to XPN all that much, I seem to catch the tune half the times that I turn on the station. Which can’t be coincidental. Meaning, the music gods high above us have their gazes firmly fixed upon me. Without a doubt they want me to make known the existence of Thinking Of A Place to some good folks who likely haven’t heard it before.

Sit back, close your eyes and let The War On Drugs take you on a splendid ride. Thinking Of A Place is good for whatever might ail you. Here it is. Peace out, brothers and sisters.

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Stoned Again And Again (A Semi-Obsession With The Rolling Stones)

jumpin-jack-flash-coverIn the summer of 1968 I did a stint as a counselor at a boys’ sleepaway camp nestled in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. It was a good gig. I liked the kids in the bunk that I oversaw. And for some reason they seemed to like me. The air up there in the mountains was fresh, the water in the camp’s lake was clean and inviting and the female counselors in the nearby girls’ camp were cute. Like I said, a good gig. The best thing of all during that summer, though, was completely camp-unrelated. It was a tune that I heard for the first time ever while lying one evening on my bunk cot. A new song, it exploded from my teeny-weeny radio, and for the rest of my Berkshires sojourn I flipped that radio’s dial as often as possible each day, seeking out the music that had blown me away. Whenever I found it, which was pretty often, I shook my head in disbelief and let it rock me anew unmercifully. And you know what? To this day, a mere 48 years later, the tune has just about the same effect upon me. We’re talking The Rolling Stones’ Jumpin’ Jack Flash, birthed in the era when those British lads were idolized, really mattered and were flabbergastingly creative, writing and recording amazing new songs prolifically and seemingly with ease.

Stones on stage in 2016. Photo by Nelson Almeida/AFP -- Getty Images
Stones on stage in 2016. Photo by Nelson Almeida/AFP — Getty Images

In 2016 the Stones are still idolized, at least by some. But really mattering and in possession of creative zing? Those days passed the Stones by long, long ago. Sure, the boys, who range in age from 69 (guitarist Ronnie Wood, a longtime but not original Stone) to 75 (drummer Charlie Watts) haven’t broken up, and for each of the last five years they’ve toured a decent amount, rocking ferociously on stage (meaning, they remain fairly active and haven’t lost their chops). Problem is, though, in concert they are nothing more than rehashers of their own well-worn classic material. And that’s because, when it comes to composing and then recording new songs, they’re plenty constipated. Guys, I’m going to ship 20 cases of prune juice to your manager’s office. You need it.

Hey, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan and Neil Young, all of whose tree rings number about the same as those of the various Stones, continue to gift the world with albums of original material. But the Stones? Nah. The only album of new bonbons they produced this century was 2005’s A Bigger Bang. And in 2011 they managed to record and release two more original songs. The well dried up after that. They do have a studio album coming out next month, but it’s filled strictly with cover versions of old blues numbers. Apparently they had entered the studio to try and crank out an album of newbies, but got nowhere with that. Trying to salvage the sessions in some way, they fell into a blues groove, jamming on numbers composed by Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf and other blues guys, and ended up with enough material for an album. I bet the record (Blue And Lonesome) will be good. But me, I’d much rather have the Mick Jagger-Keith Richards songwriting team on fire like they were looong ago. Who knows? Maybe it’ll happen again. Prune juice works.

Right, it’s kind of weird that I know about all of this Stonesy stuff. But I do. And the reason is that, in my wondrous dotage, I am, as I’ve been for nearly forever, a dopey fanboy of the Stones, though far less fervent than I used to be. I rarely play their albums at home anymore, something I once did religiously. But I keep my Stones jones alive by regularly checking up on their musical and other escapades on Google News. Did you hear, for instance, that Wood became the father of twins earlier this year? Or that Jagger will become a dad for the eighth time, at age 73, when his decades-younger-than-him girlfriend gives birth soon? Ah well, small news items like those fit comfortably into my small brain cavity. Decades ago I probably wouldn’t have thought my semi-obsession with the Stones would continue this far into eternity. Similarly, Jagger, when he was in his twenties, used to say that he couldn’t imagine performing rock and roll beyond age 30. So I guess I don’t feel too goofy about following him and his bandmates on their continuing trip. We spit at Father Time’s wrinkled face!

the-rolling-stones-we-love-you-london-3My best Stones moments in a while came recently courtesy of WXPN, a Philadelphia radio station adept at playing just about every style of music you can name. The morning DJ announced that she was spinning songs that originally had come out together on seven inch 45 rpm vinyl singles. In other words, she was playing sides A and B from a bunch of singles. When I heard her offer up the Stones’ Ruby Tuesday/Let’s Spend The Night Together something sparked in my head, turning my thoughts to another Stones 45 that I’ve always thought of as one of the ultimate singles, and whose two tunes I hadn’t heard in at least a few years. Released in 1967, during the Stones’ brief foray into psychedelia, We Love You and Dandelion found their most meaningful home on that single, as neither ever was part of a regular studio album. They did, however, eventually take up space on some of the greatest hits and compilation discs that the band is talented at issuing unnecessarily often. Great, great songs they are, despite being among the group’s lesser-known efforts.

I used to own the seven inch We Love You/Dandelion single. No more. My collection of 45s, unlike that of my vinyl albums, long ago found new abodes and/or an assortment of landfills in which to reside. Therefore, thank the stars above for YouTube, to which I turned to please my ears soon after the tunes popped into my mind. They sounded as good as I remembered them. Blessed with catchy-as-hell melodies, swirling and cascading vocals and pulsating instrumentations, We Love You and Dandelion set my head a-boppin’ and my mind a-floatin’. As always, shivers ran up and down my back as the songs’ high harmony vocal interweavings kissed the sky.

We Love You arrived in the wake of Jagger’s and Richards’ 1967 drug bust, short-term jailings, trials and, in the end, very light sentences. It was both a thank you to Stones supporters and a poke at the British legal system. Dandelion is less heady, a harpsichord and drum-driven relative of children’s songs aimed at anyone who likes to smile and groove. Both songs swell with musical daring, panache and beauty. I can’t recommend them enough. Such being the case, clicking here is what you’ll want to do to listen to the former, and here for the latter. I accept your thanks in advance.

 

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Two Million Cheez-Its And Counting

Circa 1970 one of the greatest culinary stories of my life took root: My infatuation with Cheez-It crackers. Just about everyone knows Cheez-Its. They are crunchy and salty one-inch squares, baked amalgams of cheese, wheat flour, paprika, etc.  Back then there probably was only one variety of Cheez-Its. The divine original in other words, the sort I stuck with through the years till recently switching to the Extra Toasty style. Today there are more than 25 Cheez-It types to choose from, including Whole Grain, Cheddar Jack and Mozzarella. They take up a whole lot of shelf space in most supermarkets, so clearly I’m not alone in loving Its. As we’ve been told, great minds think alike.

Cheez-It crackers in two of its many varieties.
Cheez-It crackers in two of their many varieties.

And you know what? I’ve eaten 2,000,000 Cheez-It crackers in my life, give or take a couple hundred thousand. That’s a lot of individual food items going down the gullet. Have I ever eaten more separate pieces of anything over the years? I’ve given this plenty of thought. Who wouldn’t? The only thing I can come up with is grains of rice. Maybe I’ve consumed more than 2,000,000 grains of rice. I’ll investigate that subject one of these days and let an anxious world know the results. But on with the current story.

Two million Cheez-Its. How did I arrive at that figure? It wasn’t easy. The question is deep. And so, at a loss for determining a calculation method, I started where most sensible people would start. That is, I got in touch with someone much smarter than me. I had been in phone contact with Dr. Vinnie Bubalinsky before. He’s head of the mathematics department at St. Louis Institute of Advanced Abstract And Profound Research. I had called him from out of the blue a year ago, explaining that I was wondering about angels gyrating, not dancing, on the head of the average pin. How many might fit there? Vinnie hadn’t a clue, had very little response at all to tell you the truth. I was glad to learn that tough questions don’t necessarily evoke glib answers.

The other day I dialed Vinnie’s number again and told him about my Cheez-It quandary. Vinnie remembered me. “What the f – – k’s wrong with you?” he asked. Patiently. “Get a life, you loser,” he added before ending our conversation. I would if I knew how.

I was on my own. I grabbed my favorite pen, a load of blank paper and a calculator. And I began to work out the numbers. Leave it to the Cheez-It manufacturer to make things difficult. I mean, for decades Its had come in an understandable size, a one pound package. That’s the same as 16 ounces I’ll mention to those of you who left school a long time ago. But in 2008 the Its maker downsized the box to 13.7 ounces, a strange number to be sure. And last year they did it again. The standard Cheez-It box now contains 12.4 ounces of product.

And if all that weren’t bad enough, I had to throw into the equation the fact that my Its consumption habits have changed over time. For years and years I would down three or four pounds of Its weekly. I easily could knock off a box while watching a baseball game on television. But those heights are a distant memory. In the early aughts my intake of Its dropped by half. And it has continued to shrink. For the last few years I’ve eaten about three-quarters of a pound per week.

The tools that I used for my daunting calculations.
The tools that I used for my daunting calculations.

OK. I sat at the dining room table for hours, scribbling, sweating, cursing, punching wildly at calculator keys. The basic fact that I always held onto came from the side panel of each Cheez-It box: Twenty-seven Its weigh 30 grams. And 30 grams, I found out elsewhere, are the same as about 1.1 ounces. Needless to say, progress was slow. But things eventually started to come together, to make sense. Two million Cheez-It crackers was the approximate number that I had chewed and swallowed, I finally concluded. I picked up the phone and dialed Vinnie Bubalinsky’s number, ready to gloat. But I hung up after one ring. He will read about my triumph soon enough, no doubt, on this page. Vinnie, some losers never quit.

I’d like to put my Its consumption in perspective. We all agree that 2,000,000 Cheez-It crackers are a massive amount. In fact, if you placed them edge-to-edge on a flat and straight-as-an-arrow highway, they would extend for 31.5 miles, a very sizeable distance. But wait . . . there’s something I hadn’t thought about: In a car you’d cover those miles in less than half an hour. And yet it took me 45 years to eat the crackers. What does this mean? That cars are about 1,000,000 times faster than the human mouth? That highways inherently are inappropriate places to place Cheez-Its? I really don’t know. I’m confused. I need help.

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(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)