Saturday, May 31, 2008


The family has driven to New Orleans for my daughter's graduation from middle school. It was a long drive with a baby and a restless four-year-old in the car, but fortunately, both kids and wife are good and reasonable travelers.

Yesterday we started the day with the graduation ceremony. I was the only man in the nave not wearing a suit and tie. My daughter may presume that it's just one more way that her dad can embarrass her in front of her peers; really, it was because New Orleans in late May is hot as an athlete's armpit and I was desperately trying to stay comfortable.

After the ceremony, we parted company as the graduate and her mother's family were having lunch at Commander's Palace. Places like that are supremely hard to navigate with the little ones, so we decided we'd catch up later on. The Durham posse drove through McDonalds' (the anti-Commander's) and went out to see our lot in St. Bernard. On the way down Claiborne Avenue, we saw the tent city that has sprung up beneath the I-10 overpass. Living in a crippled city is hard enough, but it was horrifying to see that so many people are littered under a bridge in a camp.

We've seen our lot in all its post-Katrina phases, so there were no real surprises for the grown-ups. The four-year-old, for whom the house on Mehle Avenue is now just a fading blip, walked around with his mom as she showed him where his room was and various landmarks, all covered by grass. I'm not sure what his impression of the place was. The street showed signs of development up toward Judge Perez Drive, but as you got further in, the decay was still evident; the old folks' home at the end of the street was still standing but just barely. The elementary school and its planetarium was in the process of demolition. Lots of slabs and empty houses. It was very depressing, to say the least.

We turned around and went back on St. Claude Avenue. There's a new skate park, but like the abandoned Jazzland/Six Flags nearby, there's no shade. At least there's someplace for kids in the Parish to go that doesn't involve riding their bikes around the ruins.

The little ones fell asleep on the ride out of St. Bernard, so we decided to go and look around in Lakeview, where we'd lived before Arabi. I guess I'd forgotten that Hynes Elementary School on Harrison Avenue had been demolished because when we drove over the bridge and I saw the vacant lot, I burst into tears. I had walked the graduate there a hundred times when she was a student at Hynes. Fortunately, I gained my composure and we drove on to survey the lots where other houses I'd lived had stood. (Hynes will have a new location soon on Gentilly Boulevard.)

Nothing has been built on the Filmore or the Catina street lots. There are plenty of new constructions throughout Lakeview, but not where I'd lived. It occurred to me that most of the homes I'd known when I lived in the city were now gone. It was like emptying out a large part of the thirteen years I'd been a resident in New Orleans, making it seem weirdly, impossibly erased.

We came back to the Maison Belle Reve, the B&B we'd stayed at during the first post-Katrina Mardi Gras. What a lovely place to stay, especially for visitors with children. Our hosts have big 'for sale' signs up in the yard, since maintaining a huge old Queen Ann-style house, with its twenty-foot ceilings and accompanying utility bills, has become impossible for them. I'm sad to seem them sell, as they've been nothing but accommodating, generous and sweet to my family.

Dinner was at La Crepe Nanou, another old favorite haunt. Crab and creamed spinach crepes for my wife and me; the four-year-old tried a crepe with bacon, egg and creamed spinach but infinitely preferred the butter and sugar version he had for dessert. The baby ate avocado ferociously and very physically; I did my best to clear the semi-circle of detritus that she produced around the highchair before we left.

Today, we took the streetcar down St. Charles Avenue to go eat beignets at Cafe du Monde. I never rode streetcars when I lived here, but I'll admit there was a sweet breeze passing through the open windows as we rode down the neutral ground to Canal Street. We walked the rest of the way up on Decatur Street. The beignets were sweet, the iced coffee was cool and refreshing in the heat. We blasted through part of the French Market before turning back to catch the streetcar back to the B&B.

Saturday afternoon we spent in Algiers at the home of my daughter's mother and her husband, enjoying meat and veggies from the grill and visiting with family and old friends. I'm always reassured when I see the love my daughter has with her New Orleans family, and much as I wish she was with us 24/7/365, I also know that she's safe, secure and happy where she is, which is the most important thing.

When we left Sunday morning at six, I was ready to go home. Visits to New Orleans for me are like seeing an old girlfriend again--nostalgic, poignant but filled with a certain relief that it's not my life anymore. I miss a lot of my world there, but I'm grateful that I have moved on. North Carolina is where I'm from, make no mistake, and I'm very happy to be living there again. I will always visit New Orleans as long as my daughter is a resident, but I find no desire left to belong to that city. Its grip on my soul has been loosed enough to get into another more comfortable place.

Monday, May 26, 2008


The talk this evening turned to walking sticks and then to whittling.

"Have I shown you my scars?" I asked my wife.

I hadn't, it turned out, so I held out my left hand and scanned the top knuckles.

"Oh, I see that one."

I found the other for her and told her the tale, which I'll tell you now:

I was at Raven Knob, the Boy Scout camp for the Old Hickory Council. I was thirteen, and it was between two sessions I was attending. Rather than go home for the day, I hung out with an older counselor, Phil, up at the health lodge. He was otherwise occupied, calling his girlfriend for the afternoon.

To kill time, because this is something you do to kill it, I sat on the porch with my Boy Scout knife and was starting to whittle a neckerchief slide out of a small block of wood, something to replace the stodgy grey standard issue metal one. My kit was supposed to be shaped like a squat 'funny' crow's head, with a big curved beak that I would eventually sand to a fine finish, then hand paint black and yellow, and finally apply a thick coat of varnish. Then I'd wear it proudly to meetings and field compliments.

Lots of Scouts carve their own slides, and when you were at camp, you could tell a lot about a guy's depth into Scouting by his neckerchief slides and patch collection. Mine was a Level 1 sub-basic kit, simple enough for a Cub Scout to carve, and that also represented my commitment to the program: my destiny as a rock musician was already inevitable by then.

My father had shown me how to use the whet stone when I was a small child, so I knew the value of a sharpened knife. Unfortunately, I had not bothered to put that knowledge to use before I left for camp, so at some point in shaping the beak, the dull blade slipped deep into my fingers and I was bleeding instantly and profusely.

Lucky stroke to be at the health lodge, as Phil was soon located and he confidently administered first aid as any good Boy Scout would do. It took a while and a lot of pressure before the bleeding stopped, and I wore gauze and bandages the whole second session, including swimming. (The unfinished slide sat in my top dresser drawer for many years, blood-stained and abandoned.)

When I got home from Raven Knob, and after a shower, I called my neighbor Charles with whom I was playing guitar in a little folk combo, the PeChes (that's an abbreviation for Peter and Charles, if you're wondering). We got together at my house with our new Kent electric guitars, plugged in my amp and began rocking, and then I noticed that blood had begun pouring out of my whittling wounds again and onto the carpet as I bent the fingers to fret the chords.

It was really hard for the thirteen year old rocker, but I had to put the guitar down for another few days until my cuts healed more convincingly.

I still have the faint scars that I got to show off to my patient spouse tonight. Every time I get down about music or the music business, I need to hold them up real close to my face and look at the little fading white lines and remember how bad it felt to not be able to play the guitar for those days and know that most everything heals in time so you can and should keep on playing.

But maybe not take up whittling again.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Two jobs I liked

I am very fortunate to have had a lot of jobs in the non-rock world that were great. A lot of people dread waking up and going to work, but I lucked out most of the time.

My record store jobs were like second families to me. I began working for Jean and Joe Reznick at their Thruway Shopping Center store when I was about fifteen years old. I'd already shopped there since I was a teeny lad, so getting a job there was a little like a dream come true, the proverbial "kid in the candy store". It was in the Reznicks' listening booth that I first heard Lick My Decals Off Baby and Sweet Baby James; I grabbed the first copy of Paris 1919 the day it came in (knowing full well that no one in Winston-Salem at that point would be beating down the doors to get it for themselves). I devoured the subscription copies of Billboard magazine and the Schwann catalog. I learned how to find replacement Pfansteihl phonograph needles from their illustrated catalog, a talent that would last long into the eighties. I learned about green stock to inventory singles and how to order the hits. Mr. Reznick sent me home with a couple of Maestro guitar pedals to try them out, including the magnificent Ring Modulator. It was a great place to work, I did the job well but I wish I'd saved some of the cash I made there which got spent on records from Reznick's ("Where It's Been Reznick's For Records For Years"). Years later, when I'd return to visit the store, Mrs. Reznick would look up over her half-frame glasses, behind her desk and declare that her bad pennies all came back to her. (There is now a Borders store where Reznick's sat at Thruway, with a small music selection.)

When I moved to New York in 1978, I tried a couple jobs that I hated (temping in banks and as a dogsbody for a decal printing operation in Soho) before I found the Musical Maze on 23rd Street and Third Avenue. It had the School of Visual Arts down the block, and the Gramercy Park Hotel a short walk away. Somehow I impressed Burt Goldstein, despite interrupting him with a customer, and he gave a naive emigre musician a job. He'd done it before with George Scott from the Contortions (and eventually John Cale, 8 Eyed Spy and the Raybeats), in whom I found a kindred spirit. The manager was Martin Rosen, who was also the cashier most of the time. He was like my big brother there (and, as it turned out, was friends with my own brother who lived in the West Village), gently chiding me for showing up out of sorts by blasting Ashford and Simpson records. Burt's girlfriend Jan DeGeer was also a big part of the store and my life there. Since Burt was busy elsewhere much of the time, running the store on a day-to-day basis fell to Jan. There were many hours after the store closed when Jan and I would be changing the displays on the walls. And it was at the Maze where I learned about boxing up returns (I'm not sure the Reznicks ever sent anything back.) Single City was a small alcove in the back that George stocked and ran. It was also a nice refuge from periodically crazy customers, although "I'm looking for a song, I don't know the name or who it's by, but it's got 'love' in it" was a frequent refrain. Down in the basement, our superintendent at one point painted the plaster cast that housed our horizontal water heater so that it resembled King Tut's sarcophagus. In the front window on 23rd Street hung a beautiful neon rendering of the logo which worked some of the time.

Every year, we would drag the old unreturnable stock from the boxes in the basement and set up shop for the Third Avenue Street Fair. You'd find me, clinging to a lamppost a couple feet up, haranguing passers-by to shop for records. That day would inevitably start with the ceremonial playing of the album by Danny Peck (Heart and Soul), for some mysterious reason lost to time. We had hellacious Christmas parties at Junior's Restaurant in Brooklyn. Garland Jeffreys, who was a neighbor, did an in-store there one Sunday and was able to complete the New York Times' crossword puzzle for all the traffic we drew for him. I got to help find records for Count Basie, Elliot Murphy and Joe Butler from the Lovin' Spoonful. I even got Lance Loud a job there that lasted about three days. I heard everything that came in the store, fell in love a hundred times with both girls and records, and learned that few things clear a store faster than the Shaggs or the Legendary Stardust Cowboy. I was on tour with The dB's when the Maze closed, but Jan sent me some memorabilia--and I recently found my silk Musical Maze embroidered tour jacket that my parents had had in safe keeping for thirty years! (Don't expect to see that on me anytime soon, it's still not really my style.) There is an upscale falafel restaurant on the site of the Maze presently.

What both stores had in common for me was the fact that the owners always seemed to understand that I was a musician first and that I would have commitments to my music that would periodically supersede my ability to perform my duties as a retailer. Sometimes that came in the form of a two-week tour and sometimes it just meant that I was too hungover from a late night to make it in on time, or at all. So consequently at these jobs, I gave freely of myself and my time and my creative energies. It was a good trade-off for both parties, I think, and I'm always grateful and mindful of having had such wonderful work to do and the bosses that took a chance on me.

Friday, May 16, 2008


Consider these songs:

1492 - Counting Crows
1865 - Third World
1921 - The Who
1934 - The Connells
1941 - Nilsson
1945 - Social Distortion
1957 - David Doucet
1959 - Patti Smith
1960 - America
1960 - Eno
1961 - Nick Heyward
1963 - New Order
1964 - Too Much Joy
1967 - Adrian Belew
1969 - The Stooges
1970 - The Stooges
1972 - Josh Rouse
1972 - Giant Sand
1973 - James Blunt
1974 - Robyn Hitchcock
1974 - Ryan Adams
1975 - Gene Clark
1976 - Alan Jackson
1976 - Redd Kross
1977 - The Clash
1978 - Liliput
1979 - Smashing Pumpkins
1981 - D-Generation
1982- Randy Travis
1983 - Jimi Hendrix
1984 - Spirit
1984 - Eurythmics
1985 - Paul McCartney and Wings
1985 - Manic Street Preachers
1987 - Minus 6
1989 - Clem Snide
1990 - The Temptations
1992 - Blur
1994 - Loudon Wainwright III
1995 - Luna
1998 - Rancid
1999 - Prince
2000 (AD) - The Rezillos
2112 - Rush
2020 - Prince

I think I've found the worst possible compilation concept.

What am I forgetting?

Edit: I will take all suggestions and update this list. Bring it on.
Edit 2: This is looking great, a natural for Rhino, right?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Coyote Lounge is now open

Our bank account is a couple hundred dollars lighter as of about five minutes ago, when I sent Tim Walker from Animals Be Gone on his way for assessing then addressing a raccoon problem in our attic. And yet, I'd have paid him more if we'd needed to.

I'm not keen on woodland creatures, especially ones who make their way into my home and make ominous noises in the night. My wife isn't a big fan either, and today she undertook the journey through the tiny trap door into our unfinished attic. I'd actually been up there a week ago, looking around to see if we could potentially add a couple rooms there in the near future. Even took photographs of the place:

But I saw no evidence of anything living up there. (I did see a lot of light coming through spaces between roof and walls, which probably happened/happens when the house's foundation settles. It's through these entrances and a few places where the squirrels in the neighborhood have gnawed through boards that our guests have arrived.)

So when Smart Wife went up there this morning, I heard her holler "Well, it's a raccoon. I'M COMING DOWN NOW" and I rushed to steady the ladder for her descent. She had spied him, little masked face staring back at her in the beam of her flashlight. She replaced the panel that covers the entry to the attic, changed her clothes and washed her hands thoroughly.

I called the Durham animal control center who does not do this kind of removal service "unless the animal is in the living quarters." Shudder. No ma'am, he's in the attic. I had Animals Be Gone recommended, and I called them immediately. Smart Wife decided to go for her run with the baby and stroller while the situation was brought under control.

Tim Walker, who runs the company with his brother, showed up around 1:30pm. He told me he'd grown up around animals and had also spent many years in construction, thus making this job a great combination of his two passions.

We took a walk around our old house, and Tim pointed out the huge gaps that were where the animals were getting in. He, too, went up the ladder to the attic. On his way up, Tim mentioned that, if we had raccoons in the attic this time of year, it was probably a mother and her babies. "And you don't want to remove the mama, 'cause then the babies'll just starve and stink up the attic in a couple of weeks." No, that sounds like a good reason to leave her alone.

"Peter, do you have a garbage bag you could send up to me?" Oh sure. Hell, why not just toss 'em down the hole toward me, and I'll scamper after them as they flee? I thought.

Turned out that what had probably been up there was the father raccoon, eating one of the babies. Tim described it in perhaps more detail than I would have liked, but I certainly now understand another not-very-cuddly aspect of the animal kingdom I was not really in touch with before.

"I'll show it to you when I get down the ladder." Er, that's okay, Tim. "Sure you don't want to confirm?" I'll take your word for it.

After disposing of the mauled carcass ("just skin and skull, really") in the back of his truck, Tim returned with some meat-fed coyote scent which he sprayed throughout the attic, at least in all the places he could get to. That was to discourage the mother from bringing her babies back up there. He let me smell the scent, and I definitely wouldn't hang out in a room that smelled like that either.

Tim explained that we probably will hear sounds tonight, which would be Mom checking the place out and then dispatching hastily from the Coyote Lounge up there; but it shouldn't be more than a couple nights. I told him we'd call him on Monday whether we heard activity or not, maybe only to hear Tim's soothing voice again.

I don't think we're going to mention the raccoon to the four-year-old. He spent a lot of time hunting down and hugging Flattop, the Merlefest raccoon mascot; I don't imagine he'd want to know how Flattop spends time with his runty children.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

A small satisfaction

Moments ago, I did the nightly ritual of checking the four-year-old's lunchbox for debris. Usually there's part of a sandwich, or the juice box crumpled inside. For the past couple days, the three carrots seemed to commute from home to school, ignored. Whatever matter is left in there has a few hours to marinate before I remember to purge the contents. We air the lunchbox out overnight.

This morning, I decided to vary lunch from peanut butter and homemade strawberry jelly with carrots to peanut butter and banana with a tiny pack of raisins.

Opening the box, I was nervous like Geraldo with Capone's vault. But unlike that story, I was elated to find an empty lunchbox on my hands. I punched the air and said 'alright' to no one in particular.

Just a little change-up...

Sometimes, that's all it takes.

Saturday, May 3, 2008


We performed a corporate show in San Diego early this week, at the Convention Center. Most convention centers are designed to fit a maximum amount of people into a minimum amount of space, with lots of headroom above them, and San Diego's is no exception.

I walked out a little before the show to change a couple settings on my keyboard rig and stood transfixed for a moment at the roar of the voices. It was constant, like an eternal wave crashing on a nonexistent beach. The pitch of the pink noise was steady, rising and falling only slightly.

By the time we marched to the stage, the clamor had become more amped with presumably more alcohol in the attendees' systems. Makes sense; people are stuck in meetings all day, getting lectured about ways to improve their performance, to better their line-toeing, to focus their abilities toward increasing the company's bottom line. I mean, who wouldn't want to party down to a rock band after that?

We started our show and got about four songs in. What began as foot-tapping, I assume, on the part of the audience progressed into bouncing, not quite pogoing but steady and rhythmic and ever-increasing in force. The stage and the floor beneath it began to bounce as well.

It could well be due to my short residency in Los Angeles, but when floors start shaking, I start worrying. It's also due to a memory of a club that The dB's played at a bunch in the 1980's called Ocay'z Corral in Madison, Wisconsin. Our guitar tech, the uber-talented Jimmy Descant, who also roadied for the late, great Royal Crescent Mob, reminded me why (thanks, Jimmy!):

"The stage was in the front against a big picture window, and the dressing room downstairs in the basement. The place was packed and about a half hour into (the RC Mob's) set, I saw a dip in the heads in the audience, and soon realized they just weren't short, they were low! Went down and the rafters were cracking! Then the smell of natural gas!

"Packed up some guitars and went to another club, told the crowd, and took off, after getting paid of course!

"A couple years later someone got killed outside when a semi- went off the road and slammed into the front of the building. I think it burned down a couple years after that."

So as the bouncing continued, I began replaying that scene in my head and projecting into my immediate future. A gigantic hole in the floor that would suck down Hammond organs, drum kits and singers, just the same. I mentally wrote my will and said my goodbyes. At least I'd die doing what I loved, a small consolation for the oncoming end time.

Apparently, the audience in whatever state of revelry they were in must have thought of the same thing, as the bouncing abated by the next song. By the time the set was over, I was already plotting my escape to the hotel. Nobody went through the floor, but I was certainly not going to stick around to see if it happened.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

May Day

Sorry to be away so long, did you miss me?

Time for a little shameless self-promotion again.

For those of you who remember 1978, a little 45 that I recorded and released that year has been anthologized with a massive amount of weird, wonderful stuff on a CD from Ace Records called Rock On. Rock On is the name of a famous record store in London, a collectors' store by which collectors' stores are judged. Somehow, "Big Black Truck" ended up on this compilation, and its heavy-handed slapback echo seems to fit right in alongside such ringers as "Cast Iron Arm" by Peanuts Wilson (a fave of Mitch's and mine from the MCA Rockabillies series), "Linda Lu" by Ray Sharpe and "Slipping and Sliding Sometimes" by Link Davis (Cajun fiddle and bongo drums). If your tastes run toward the darker corners of rockabilly and r 'n' b, then you'll want to own this fine collection as soon as you can convert pounds sterling to yankee dollars.

And for my book-buying friends, there's a new anthology of pieces by musicians and writers from the Carolinas called Making Notes. Sure enough, I'm among the fifty contributors. It's exciting to have my writing considered good enough to make it into a book of this quality. Making Notes will be available to the general buying public Wednesday May 14, and there's a party at the Visulite Theatre in Charlotte to mark its release (which I unfortunately won't be able to attend--however, I will be at the one in Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, Thursday June 5 at 7:00pm, guitar and Sharpie in tow).

And there may be some more good news in the pipeline, but I will wait until it's a fact and not an apparition.