Wisdom of Andy

Went fishing with my father today, an outing that always brings back a lot of good memories of the olfactory, muscle and narrative types. One of our regular bits is to review the “Wisdom of Andy,” the koans spoken by a regular on one of those party fishing boats who was easily fifty years my senior.

“Eat a pepper sandwich”. Quite literally, Andy put sliced bell peppers on bread and ate a succession of them through the morning’s fishing stops. He was a man who made the most of his local (garden) resources.

“Catch your fish going under”. When drift fishing, your line either goes under the boat or away from it; when you’re “under” you run over the fish first. Andy was a big believer in catching most of your fish by getting first crack at them, particularly the big ones.

“Catch the ones the other side missed”. The logical counter to having the best luck going under, if the opposite side of the boat wasn’t literally pulling its weight, you could pick up the slack.

“Always use fresh bait”. Whether there is anything to to science of fish picking up scent, contrast, or just ensuring you were checking that you had bait on the hook (after drifting over rocks or rough bottom spots), this was the best advice of all. There is likely some deeper meaning to ensuring you make the most of each chance, and present your best face at all times, but really it just means to make sure you have bait on the hook.

You can interpret Andy’s mental lures however you like, but he really was just dispensing rather good fishing advice. The fun part of sharing a boat with a group of strangers is that sometimes they leave you with sound bites to accompany the fish bites for the rest of your life.

Quadrennial House Guest Reflection

One of my favorite images of Hanukah is that of the house guest that visits you for a week, during which you indulge in foods and celebration. For years, I’ve felt the end of Hanukah tinged with sadness, as I pack away the special menorot and candles, putting away the equivalent of our house guest’s trappings for another year. A similar, but different, feeling applies to the Olympics. Staggering the winter and summer games has made their two week run feel less like a leap year or Presidential election and more like a much anticipated book or album release. However, there’s still the feeling that you’re living with a long-cycle periodic house guest who holds up a mirror for you to check in on how things have progressed. Or not.

We see ourselves in the Summer Games more than the winter episode because anyone who has run around outside, glided on a swingset, hung from a playground climbing set, kicked a ball or jumped in the water has visions of being the best, the fastest, the first of some unique aspect to ascend that podium. The Summer Olympics appeal to our first and best outdoor childhood instincts.

We need to measure how we, as a nation, show up. Are we respectful of the host country, its norms and people and food and culture, or do we vandalize a local business and lie about it? And then as a country, do we fail to ask for accountability of those chosen (and funded) to represent us? Not just in their actions, but in how they participate, cheer for their teammates, and how they comport themselves in and around other athletes (good: men’s basketball team cheering for swimming; bad: same team staying on a luxury yacht)

We need to let the stories tell themselves, rather than having NBC spoon fed us tape delayed highlights and heavily produced segments. One of the highlights for me was seeing runner Brenda Martinez sporting a Coheed and Cambria tattoo, which she later acknowledged to fellow fans. On Twitter. That bit about seeing yourself in the games? Works for us old people too. She overcame incredible adversity, trained in basketball shoes, and has given back to her sport immensely. There’s a hero of the games who doesn’t need a medal to earn our admiration, and has done more to tell her story with authenticity than any professional sportscaster.

We need to realize that the athletes representing our country are projection of our demographics and diversity, and to treat our country’s team with respect, equality, and a little bit of “all nations but mostly America” pride (to quote Muppet Sam The Eagle). If we go looking for every fault with those we’ve put on the international stage, how can we achieve anything with our neighbors and co-workers who represent those same changing demographics. It’s not just gender and skin color and religion and body shape; it’s style and approach and geography and public comfort. I’m sometimes amazed that Bill Walton became an outstanding basketball commentator after learning how to work with his stutter; had internet trolls existed to shame him in his early interviews then we would have lost the opportunity to hear a jocular and informed voice. Why on earth do we even consider shaming those who have represented us so well on the world stage, for their actions in cheering teammates, receiving honors, or excelling in their sports that require strength and agility composited with poise and character in any shape or color of body?

If the Summer Olympics are our house guest, here to reflect our collective and individual behaviors, let them show the best of mature adult as well as dreaming child.

Generational Performance

I believe once every 18-20 years we witness something that constitutes a generation marking performance; a confluence of skills, poise, courage, stamina, team and individual leadership that make us sit up and take notice, in a way that we’ll use as a chronological reference point for the ensuring quarter century.

Within my sports recall lifetime:

The 1980 US Men’s Olympic Hockey Team. The 1969 Mets and 2004 Red Sox. The “We Are Family” 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates. Bill Walton in his final season with the Boston Celtics. Mark Spitz.

I’ll add a Rio quartet: Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Katie Ledecky, Simone Manuel. Nearly all of the previous generational moments happened in a world of print media, selective mediated access, and slowly evolving timelines. Our US Olympic women athletes competed in a world of social media, intense pressure, direct access to and from the athletes, and a race to expose “stories.” Each of the four battled competition and those external pressures to deliver a generational performance. Katie Ledecky literally swam away from the pack, and then was the roommate and teammate everyone wants as she cheered Simone Manuel to a gold medal. Simone Manuel combined faith and grace and power to establish new a first ascent. Aly Raisman showed how you come back from crushing disappointment with stamina, humility, hard work, and an intense smile. Simone Biles makes me question gravity, in both the physical and existential sense. She seems to be having more fun the higher she flies.

The generational moment is that I like the Olympics again, after re-assuring myself that I wouldn’t watch or care.

Economics of Expertise

[Ed Note: I started writing this more than four years ago, after seven months of semi-employment during which I was consulting for a large scale publishing site. The outline emerged after dinner with their CEO, a long-time friend, who is one of the most multi-talented people I know with skills ranging from guitar player to professional football player to software company executive. I placed myself officially in the “old fart” chronological category after lamenting our inability to find people who think in “big systems” or have kernel level understanding of operating systems. That seemingly unrelated set of facts gave rise to this musing on how scarcity and expertise are differently valued and measured.]

Value historically was tied solely to scarcity, driven by the economics of ownership and uniqueness. As my father in law once said, real estate by the beach will always increase in value because nobody is making more of it. Whether driving pricing in ancient coins, exceptional quality, never-been-in-bike-spokes baseball cards, or high end sports cars, scarcity dominates the world of atoms. Physical things are more valued when there are either fewer of them (Honus Wagner baseball cards) or over-stimulated demand for them (San Francisco 1 BR apartments).

Unless you are making, selling or arbitraging those items, it’s hard to make money in the scarcity market. Markets that were driven by and respected for their scarcity – world class journalists, for example – have been overrun by surplus where anyone who can publish a blog post is a news source, re-shared endlessly on Facebook creating a sense of authority backed by no real measure of value. Old fart category, indeed. I’m channeling Rick Wakeman more than listening to him now.

However, scarcity economics aren’t the sole engine of an economy driven by information, a world in which “Chaos Monkeys” author Antonio Garcias Martinez points out that in the future, you’ll either tell a computer what to do or be told what to do by a computer. Uber is a case in point: the scarcity of taxi cab medallions is replaced by information that matches riders and drivers, estimates wait times, provides pricing transparency and accepts credit cards. Information economies are driven by expertise: who creates and curates the information, and who knows how, where and why to act on it. Capture the expertise needed to efficiently organize a city’s taxi pool and you have a business.

It’s why Yahoo! died a slow death. During my semi-employment term, I spoke with a senior technologist at Yahoo! as something of a pre-screen for a senior role. I felt like my understanding of their business was fundamentally disconnected from the reality at the time, and nothing happened. I’m not sure Yahoo! was ever serious about trying to connect people (the point of communities, mail, Flickr), but on the other hand “connect” usually resolves to “create targeted advertising” which was the bulk of their business model. Online aggregations of high-end sports car fan boys perusing articles about the joys of owning a McLaren are shown ads for BMW repair shops in the local area. Yahoo! dabbled in content, but it really was an advertising company without a differentiator despite the various content curation plays. Had Yahoo! decided to truly play in expertise, to go from being an index of the internet to a market-making force in expertise, it may have carved out an identity better than being the pewter medalist in online search.

How do you monetize the expertise economy, aside from hiring people with particular expertise in your required domain? You create opportunities for skill development, for skill application (the true measure of expertise isn’t knowing something, it’s knowing how to apply it appropriately), and eventually for skill validation. It’s how you retrain vast swaths of the population who will be displaced by automation ranging from self-driving trucks to order-taking kiosks. It’s the business model of Code Academy, and prior to that, the effective business model of O’Reilly and Associates [disclosure: I am an O’Reilly author]. It’s how TopCoder crowdsources small scale solutions, creating a market of vetted expertise.

There are potential interplays between the bits and atoms worlds, where expertise guides choices and product selection. Attach the right experts to an eBay or amazon.com product category, and you’re likely to generate more transactions with higher satisfaction. It’s a refactoring of the grizzled guy with nine fingers in the back of the hardware store, who would take one look at whatever misshapen home repair project you brought in and tell you “10×24 thread, not 10×32, third bin on the left side, and get both the inch and the inch and a quarter lengths to be sure.” You aren’t getting that kind of help at Home Depot, and if you want it, Quora probably isn’t the right solution either. When you paid 20% more for your hardware at the corner store, it covered the cost of the expertise. It’s likely time to revisit that model, connecting purveyors of expertise to those who need it dispensed.

The Heart Spoken Khatru

[Warning: set list spoilers ahead for the Yes “Album Tour”]

I had admittedly mild expectations for the Yes show in Atlantic City last night, between the revised band lineup retaining only Steve Howe as an original “core member” and the emphasis on playing two albums providing something of a rigid format. After taking in a run of Phish shows, I was looking forward to being in the younger part of the audience for once (including the option to sit through most of the show), but that’s hardly a good motivator for taking in a good show.

I was really, really wrong, and never have I been so glad to be so wrong.

If you are anything of a Yes fan, and spun your copy of “Yessongs” until the dynamic range on the grooves wore down, then go see one of these shows. Geoff Downes brings energy and some practicality to the keys (he’s not Wakeman, nobody is, so instead of muddling through he attacks the pieces where he can add his own unique color); Billy Sherwood has a big, swirly tone that will make you think Squire but again, he doesn’t try to fill in for the much-missed bassist. Jon Davison sounds scarily like Anderson, enough that your heart also skips that missing eighth note in the 15/8 sections. While I had feared I’d see Steve Howe fronting a tribute band that was trying hard to recreate Yes of the 1970s, what I got was a genuine Yes experience of the mid-2010s. And it was awesome.

stevehowe1
And speaking of Steve Howe: He had more fun on stage than in the twenty years I’ve been seeing Yes. Modulo the requisite peccadilloes that seem to annoy him during every show (a spotlight that missed the beginning of his solo, causing him to wave frantically, a mic that cut out during his introduction to a song, his guitar cable that seemed to keep catching on his shirt), he was jumping around, unleashing solo after solo that were true explorations of the pieces, and he even smiled. I was rapt and in awe and happier than I’ve been since pulling the plastic off of the copy of “Yessongs” I bought at Two Guys in Manalapan (for $11).

For the first time in a long time, I didn’t check out the setlist before hand; I wanted to be surprised by the “and other songs”. I’ve loved Drama for 35 years, and Tales grew on me as I listened to it in pieces (turning point: putting on the “Keys to Ascension” CD in the W hotel, in San Francisco, during one of the first JavaOne conferences; it seemed pretentious to have a CD player in my hotel room, so I put on something worthy of the artifact and really heard the intricate parts). Deep down, though, I have a few favorites, staples of my Yes experience and my gold standards for judging any audio system.

stevehowe2

Once again, the band didn’t disappoint. After a solid “Your Move/All Good People” (first time I’ve seen that one live!) Steve Howe strapped on a gorgeous walnut ES-335 and ripped into the opening chords of “Siberian Khatru”. Dean Budnick, editor of “Relix” magazine, posed the question in a recent masthead editorial asking “What was the album that did it for you?” For me, it was listening to WYSP, one summer night on Long Beach Island, as they tracked all of “Close to the Edge.” I’d only heard the live version on Yessongs, and hearing the perfectly executed studio version, concluding the best prog album of all time, send chills up my spine that obviated the need for air conditioning. Howe’s solo at the end of “Khatru” is one of the few places he can really interpret the song, take some liberties, mix chords with dazzling runs. A favorite music teacher once described a woodwind passage as “angels singing over the top of the orchestra” (in a pandering attempt to get us to stop butchering that passage), and in the pseudo-religious paen of “Khatru” (seriously: khatru is a made up word, and the song is full of oblique Christ imagery) Howe’s solo just sails over the top of a rather intense closing section. It is, was and always will be my most favorite song, and hearing it — in the moment, never to be played just like that again — was its own religious experience.

My comment to Bubba: This is as good as Rosh Hashanah for renewal and refresh.

In between tracks of “Tales” once again Steve Howe came out with a bench, an acoustic, and a smile. I was thinking “Mood for a Day” or perhaps “Clap” but what we got was the moving guitar solo from “The Ancient”, arranged the same way it’s on “Not Necessarily Acoustic”. Another experience thought I’d never hear live, and alone worth the price of admission. Despite Howe’s admonitions that he doesn’t see the point of playing “Roundabout” every show, it’s a moving encore and brought the crowd to its feet. Had the show ended then and there, I would have been sated, elated and (per Khatru-ism) expiated.

Until the swirling, head-rushing, all hands on all keyboards and frets and sticks opening of “Starship Trooper.” Not only is it the other bookend to “Yessongs” and concludes with another guitar solo with headroom to explore, it has some bass pedal work that is the standard for judging subwoofers. It’s the perfect vehicle for a band that’s been nearly perfect in its performance, its musicianship, and it’s ability to breathe life into their canon for nearly half a century. The vocal chord that concludes “Starship Trooper” was perfectly reflective: new voices, old voices, one band that continues to reveal the heart spoken khatru, not just for me but for another generation of fans.

And Then There Was One

Tomorrow night the Bubba and I are off to see Yes do their “album series” – all of “Drama” and the two popular sides of “Tales from Topographic Oceans” (Revealing Science of God and Ritual). Yes is now down to one core member — Steve Howe — from the Yessongs era band that lived on my Radio Shack turntable. After Chris Squire’s death last year, Wakeman’s replacement with Drama-era member Geoff Downes, Anderson’s multiple level replacement with tribute band vocalist Jon Davison, just two weeks ago long time drummer Alan White underwent back surgery that will put him on tour hiatus as well. Either prophetic or ironic, “Drama” was the first Yes album out of the “main sequence” without Anderson or Wakeman, but prominently featuring Howe and Geoff Downes exploring a bit further than “Tormato” or “Going For The One.” Life sometimes imitates art, as seen through the lens of band dynamics.

I also picked up a ticket to see Renaissance in mid-November, also down to one of the core members — vocalist Annie Haslam. If Howe is the guitar voice of Yes, then Haslam is the voice-turned-lead instrument of Renaissance. After Michael Dunford’s death, Jon Tout’s death, and bassist Jon Camp’s disappearance from public view, Haslam holds up the banner of 1970s prog memories with a competent touring band (including the insanely talented Tom Brislin and Rave Tesar).

Counting down to final surviving members is both maudlin and misses the point – despite calls for Yes to officially dis-band it is a privilege, and often a lifetime experience, to see and hear your musical heroes on stage. In an age of re-releases, concert vault soundboards, and boxed sets aggregated around any reasonable marketing principle, live music remains the best link between audience and artist. It’s increasingly the best way for musicians to make money, and it provides a unique experience for the casual or die-hard fan. I don’t begrudge Yes or Renaissance touring one semiquaver; whether they choose to bill as “Steve Howe and friends” or “Yes” is a marketing issue, not a musical one – you know what you’re getting, and you can look forward to it (as I have) for months. “Dead & Company” with Trey Anastasio was not the Grateful Dead, but the music was just as joyful and reached a quarter million people last summer. Names are for accountants and promoters; the music tells its own story whether its one or five composing members on stage to perform it live.

Each time I see Steve Howe perform, I’m shocked by his intensity, his proficiency and his flexibility; he’ll play half a dozen guitars with a dozen sounds and if you blink you miss the transitions. He is the one we want to see for as long as he’ll tour, not matter how he is billed.

“Going For The One” After 39 Years

The Yes album “Going For The One” turned 39 on Thursday (Do rock albums hit 39 and then stop counting? Or only mark the prime numbered anniversaries after that?). Released in the summer of 1977, it wasn’t until early in the fall of my sophomore year of high school that I heard the album and at least a year later when I finally bought a vinyl copy. It is perhaps my favorite Yes album, despite fierce competition from “Relayer” and “Yessongs,” but that distinction is earned through the emotional dynamic range the songs evoke, and the happy associations I have with my acquisition of my first ability to listen to it.

Middle and high school buddy Lewis and I shared some odd musical entanglements — we both liked Yes and were both into what passed for sound production (tape recorders, Radio Shack microphones, lots of low quality cables) in the 1970s. One day he handed me his brother’s copy of “Going For The One” with the instruction to make a tape of it so I could check it out. [Ed note: Yes, this is stealing music, and no, you shouldn’t do this, and yes, I eventually bought my own vinyl and CD copies and yes, I’ve spent so much money seeing Yes that I no longer feel guilty as charged]. It seemed scandalous, and it made me treasure every note of that album even more. After “Relayer” I really didn’t know what to expect (3 songs, and some crazy Patrick Moraz keyboards) — and “One” took me in a wonderful set of directions.

“Going For The One” – Steve Howe guitar riffs and outro solo. Perhaps the most rocking Yes song ever. Howe plays pedal steel on it all the way through, and it may be my favorite work of his on that guitar (even including “And You And I”).

“Parallels” – love the Squire bass riff on this, and if you listen carefully, the organ intro. Cold ending is a favorite, in whatever time warped time signature that is.

“Awaken” – a song with not one but two musical climaxes, the tension and release building around Wakeman’s keyboards (I am purposely avoiding make this more explicit than need be, but yeah, it’s a church organ solo that is mind blowing). Seeing “Awaken” live was a career concert highlight, with Squire on the triple neck bass.

“Turn Of The Century” – While I adore the version on the album, Steve Howe’s duet with Annie Haslam is mystical. After a period of not listening to much music (read: having two kids under the age of 4) I was sitting in my car outside the Showplace Ice Cream Shop in Beach Haven (RIP), with WYSP locked in as it was every summer on Long Beach Island, and I heard the Howe/Haslam version of this song, and it literally re-awakened my love of Yes and prog rock and listening to “my music” again. So the first album that I ripped also became the one to reconnect my disposable income with one of my favorite bands. Shortly after, our daughter heard me playing it (a common occurance) and asked if Roan’s wife was sick the way that her great-grandmother (for whom she is named) was sick, and I was in awe. Again.

Other random factoids: Cover by Hipgnosis, not Roger Dean. Scared me. I don’t like “Wondrous Stories,” never did, and it gets no nod above. The cover buildings are the Century Plaza in LA, which is about the least likely place to find any member of Yes.

I credit Lewis for getting me into “production” which eventually took me to WPRB in Princeton as a DJ, and later into building guitar pedals, and I’ll forever associate his smile with that rockabilly, rough house riff that opens the title track, even if it was coming through a 2 inch tape recorder speaker with more distortion than a Soundgarden show.

39 years of life lessons: buy music, support your artists, thank your friends and their older brothers who are generous with their recommendations, and sometimes those crazy ideas tied up in a rat’s nest of cables lead you to something fun later in life.

Six Nights, Five Shows, Four States, Three Crews and A Phish

Call it a midlife crisis, call it a case of good luck and logistics rewarding me after difficulty getting tickets in 2015, call it a bit of rejoicing in my 53rd year: I went to five consecutively scheduled Phish shows, in six nights, spending time in four states with three different concert crews in two time zones. I’m visibly exhausted, but mentally elated. I’ve learned my limits (2-3 shows per summer with at least a day off in between, ideally a day without work or travel).

Chicago: A raucous start to the Wrigley shows, with a blistering Chalkdust Torture and a super funky 2001, and a second night in the second city that included a near-perfect Fluffhead and a Piper->Steam jam that covered every modal, tonal and mental staff space available. Toss in a trip to the Chicago Music Exchange, some insanely good BBQ and Italian beef (on top of a sausage, should have been a Meatstick hint) and a ride on the “L” and it was a wonderful way to enjoy a dad-and-lad weekend with my favorite bass player (who also happens to be my recent college graduate son).

Deer Creek/Noblesville: Leaving Chicago at dawn was a hint; the venue is far from downtown; I just couldn’t get the right combination of food, water and rest to make it all click. But got to catch up with an old friend, shared a lot of stories, literally parked next to my cousin whom I’d been chasing all through the Windy City, and saw another impressive show.

Travel Day: I think I worked on Monday but I’m not sure what I did. By Tuesday morning I was repacked and en route to Philadelphia after a solid day of work.

Philadelphia: Shows at the Mann have become something of a summer centerpiece — the same crew pre-gaming, the trip into Philly that is full of anticipation, knowing that the band usually has family members in attendance and always seems to put in an extra effort. This year only raised the bar, with a “Crosseyed and Painless” that knocked my tie-dyed socks off, some new songs, and finally, after six years of chasing, wishing, listening and discussion, a “Meatstick” that was fun, goofy, funky and worthy of being played in a city that boasts of its pork stores and meat sticks.

So why, why, do I grind my knees for 4-5 hours at a show, walk up some insanely tortuous hills, smile when some happily dancing phans bounce off of me, give up sleep, proper hydration and perhaps a bit of hearing above 10 kHz? I think I get the same happy, I’m-glad-to-see-this-gang, sincerely aligned feeling that I used to get at Princeton Reunions; the summer is here and Phish is on tour and for a few hours, nothing else matters. It’s the set list, some jam explorations, some blistering solos, and the tension and release that continues not just intra-song, but through two sets of live music that get twelve to forty thousand people singing, dancing and cheering along for the ride.

Some more thoughts on my summer tour of the tour:

  • The musicians in Phish truly enjoy working with each other. If we all loved our co-workers, trusted them, and got wonderful, surprising and creative output from them each and every day, the DJIA would be at 30,000.

  • Those thirty seconds between the house lights cutting out and the first notes of a set opening song embrace and entangle the excitement and mystery of a first date, a surprise party, and seeing an old friend after an absence. You know the dynamic range of possibilities, but the approach and sound and fury are all there to get you by surprise.

  • After five shows and well over 100 songs, I only heard four songs repeated. Was rewarded with a few songs I had been “chasing,” collecting them the way numismatists look to fill that open circle in the album (Meatstick, Steam, and a Fishman vacuum solo). In any other concert, a drummer in a dress modulating the sucking sound of a vacuum into a microphone would border on the absurd; with Phish it’s just another silly counterbalance to the intensity of the well-craft composed pieces.

  • After the statue-still pause in “Divided Sky” (Wrigley night 2), I may have shed a tear. I’m in the middle of a musical adventure, in a new city (for me), standing in the upper deck of a storied baseball stadium looking out over a sea of people 20,000 leagues and stories deep, and one of my favorite bands is frolicking – no other word – through a lullaby inspired composed section before tearing off into an inspired bit of soloing. Being there, with my musically inclined (and talented) son, soaking in the summer night and sounds and fragrances (of all types), just hits you in the sentimental bone. “Divided Sky” has been on my “favorite song” ascent for years now. Add to that the fact that Ben and I have heard “Harry Hood” in a majority of our shows together, and it’s becoming a bonding experience — Philly has King of Prussia, Boston has the Hood milk jug in the Fort Point Channel.

  • I was thinking that the only song I wanted to hear (but didn’t) was “Cities” (more than made up for by the “Crosseyed and Painless” 2nd set Mann 2 opener), after some prompting from Ben I realized I would have also liked a “Ghost” and “David Bowie.” That said, I was so enamored of what I did hear, and how I heard it, that to wish for anything more would be gluttony at the musical buffet.

  • The mark of an insanely good show is that moment when you think you’ve hit a peak, and then the band pivots into something unexpected but even more wonderful. The mildly bluegrass “Oh Kee Pah” segues to “Suzy Greenburg” and then Fishman and Page are trading fours like jazz musicians in the solo section. “Slave to the Traffic Light” soars and meanders to a major and majorly good conclusion, only to give way to the opening arpeggios of “You Enjoy Myself.” (Mann 1) A near perfect “Fluffhead” comes out of a darkly complex “Tweezer”; the set concludes (you think) with “Harry Hood” but then eases into “Tweeprise.” (Wrigley 2).

    All told, it was a great week with great friends, old and new, and a set of shows I will listen to in the depth of winter when I miss the smell of grilled meats, greasy french fries, and spilled beer.

  • Guitar Heaven: Chicago Music Exchange

    After years of second hand conveyance of its greatness, we ventured into the Chicago Music Exchange Saturday afternoon as part of our pre-Phish-at-Wrigley festivities. With adulthood musical interests heavily influenced by the original Sam Ash and Manny’s (when they were two entities) in Musician’s Row, we are both somewhat snarky about music shops and also always on the lookout for that sincere mix of expertise, axes, and environment that makes you feel at ease no matter the extent of your chops, geography or wallet.

    The Chicago Music Exchange (@ChicagoMusicEx) is our new comfort zone.

    The main entry of the Chicago Music Exchange

    The main entry of the Chicago Music Exchange

    When you walk in you’re greeted by walls of guitars, sorted by vendor – if you’ve never seen a wall of Rickenbackers, or better yet, an entire wall of Gibson Les Pauls (further sorted into black and sunburst/tobacco finishes) then you should make the trip. It’s hard to quantize properly – imagine being at a car show where car from commuter can to high end speedster is on display with all variations in color, options and vintage. There are 50 year old guitars with all of the signs of being played hard, and pristine mint models that await their first introduction to an amplifier.

    The wall of Gibson Les Pauls at the Chicago Music Exchange

    The wall of Gibson Les Pauls at the Chicago Music Exchange

    The second, and more subtle, sense is that the store is optimized for people to come in, play and relax. There are comfy couches and chairs, and some benches lining the display walls. Sound protected rooms with an abundance of high-end amps and cabinets are there for you to audition guitars, so you avoid the cacophony and fatigue-inducing “I can go one louder” of a purely open floor. I was looking for the “No Stairway To Heaven” sign – although this weekend it more properly should have read “No Stash” (the dexterity demonstration of Phans with six strings everywhere).

    Downstairs, in the appropriately punned “Bassment” we found an equally wonderful assortment of gear, from new Rickenbacker 4004s to local luthier Serek’s work to more Fender basses than you could play in a lifetime. Again, accommodating setup for musician and family roadie alike, and the staff knowledge was as remarkably deep as it was freely and politely dispensed. Years ago I read stories about Steve Howe (of Yes fame) going into Manny’s in New York to see “what was new” and I have to believe Chicago Music Exchange provides an equivalent experience.

    The bass-filled Bassment

    The bass-filled Bassment

    Despite the siren (and drop-D tuned) calls of the Serek, Sandowsky and Warwick basses, it was not our day to add to the ever-growing guitar collection. The coda to our visit: “We just played $50,000 of guitars, can I get a shirt?” asked Ben, and the front desk staff was only too happy to go find one in the right size/color scheme. It’s the small things that make customers — especially long-distance customers — eager to return again and again. It may be the centerpiece of our next pilgrammage to the Second City.

    Father’s Day 2016: A Poem In The Cards

    This is a chapter from a book I’ve had in progress for more than 15 years — one day I may finish it, but for now, here is my tribute to fathers, uncles, grandfathers, and fathers’ friends, all of whom help us craft poetry out of our allegiances. Hat tip to Cory Doctorow who provided inspiration along the way.

    “..so the cards stayed in the glass cases in Eddie’s…And after a while I no longer opened my shoe boxes…And the surprising thing was that I never really missed them. Or even thought of them in any special way. And very gradually the memory of it all faded….And that is the way you always lose your childhood.”
    – Brendan C. Boyd and Fred C. Harris, “The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book”

    “It all made poems…when I spread them out in front of the TV, and arranged them just so, they made up a poem that took my breath away…A thirtyish bachelor trying to spend half a month’s rent on four glasses so that he could remember his Grandma’s kitchen was a story and a poem.”
    –Cory Doctorow, “Craphound”

    My childhood was never lost, not with the passing of Willie Stargell and not with university commencement and not when my baseball cards were thrown away, because my Mom never thought to dispose of the briefcase in which they were safeguarded. My childhood retreated and went subsurface, only to be reeled back into current events with my own kids. Collecting sports memorabilia, especially sports cards, is the cornerstone of that rebuilding.

    I love collecting things with a past. They form a jigsaw puzzle, missing some center pieces, telling most of a story with only a few salient details left to be discovered or invented. I have an entire box of world coins, collected by uncles in various tours through Europe, stamped with mint dates between the World Wars, in currencies or from countries that no longer exist. The older, more worn coins have history encoded in fingerprints and scratches. Their person to person circulation stopped when pocketed by someone like my Uncle Ziemel, saving a coin from every country where he had a cup of coffee and told his own stories.

    Coins were something to be studied and tucked into cardboard albums; baseball cards were the circulating currency of my youth. I remember the smell of the bubble gum inside the wax paper packages, the slightly gritty feel of the card unlucky enough to be riding shotgun with what passed for gum but had the taste and consistency of an ill-fated marriage of gum rubber and sugar. Baseball cards arrived in my hands from a number of sources: cards won in flipping contests with classmates; payment for some nerd oriented activity – my biggest haul being payment for the home-made Phillies jersey t-shirt that eventually ruined my friends’ laundry; a reward after a Little League game long before the snack bar became a staple of the 60-foot diamonds.

    I sorted, arranged, cataloged and read my baseball cards with interest ritually required for rabbinic interpretation, fearing that I’d overlook some subtle nuance or fact that might prove useful later in life. It’s how I learned that Willie Stargell was from Oklahoma; that he owned a chicken restaurant that was his off-season occupation; or that some baseball players took time off for military service before resuming their careers. Baseball cards were the intersection of nerdiness and sports; they let me be a student of the game without actually playing the game. They were a view into the game; they elaborated on players’ lives off the diamond one sentence at a time; they were a mass of statistics and numbers and checklists and other things to thrill a budding engineer. I never had the urge to collect famous players or complete sets; I had what I had and was happy to pick up the occasional extra Willie Stargell card as well as additional Pirates or Mets. Too young for Mickey Mantle, too old for baseball cards as a serious business. Cards were the harbinger of elementary and middle school springs, pre-dating televised spring training games or fantasy baseball magazines on the variety store shelves. An old business-suitable briefcase served as safe haven and predictor of their eventual value in someone else’s business, and prevented them from suffering in the periodic childhood closet pogroms.

    Somewhere between 7th grade and having kids of my own, sports cards went from “my business” to Big Business. Collectors fret over the nuances of a card in mint condition and look at the quality of the image on the card stock. Price guides abound and cards represent a brisk business on eBay, creating a stock market for childhood memories. Sports cards don’t have the well-traveled history of a 1923 Czechoslovakian coin. They go from sealed pack to plastic holder to eBay or memorabilia retailer, untouched, unworn, maintaining their “near mint” status but losing some ability to carry the memory of touch. The sports card industry has somewhat made up for this by embedding pieces of game-worn jerseys or equipment in the cards themselves, so our associations with the cards are through experiences with the literal sports thumbnails wedged between the pasteboard slices.
    Before commercial interests established formal systems for card ownership, my own grading system went something like this:

    • Pack Fresh. Smells of bubble gum, and minor nicks where the glue that holds the wax packs together leeches onto the face of the cards. They last approximately 36 seconds in this state before being shoved into pants pockets, thrown into boxes, or deemed fit only for spoking. Should a particularly interesting card surface in the wax pack, the lifespan of pack fresh cardboard increases correspondingly, but eventually the goods have to make it back to your bedroom.
    • Unlaundered. Rescued from pants pockets before the washing machine could bleach ink from the paper, corners slightly damaged from last minute shoving out of a teacher’s line of sight, but reasonably legible.
    • Game worn. Today “game worn” means the card has that small slice of a jersey, bat, glove, stick, or other equipment wedged between the front and back faces. It is a bit of the game reduced to trading size and delivered to the collector. In middle school, “game worn” meant that the card had seen its share of flipping, trading, last-second jamming into desk trays in home room, and any other signs of having been played with by pre-teens.
    • Spoked. Shows clear signs of being clipped to the fork holding a bicycle wheel. Spoking a card, or a set of cards, meant that your bicycle made a cool thwack-thwack-thwack sound as you raced up and down the street; if motorcycle mufflers were filled with papier-mache you’d get the same sound effect. Much of the ink on the front is worn off, and at the atomic level card is barely held by the weak nuclear force. There are definitely times when, as fans, we feel we’d like to take one of our less favorite players and administer a virtual spoking, but as kids we did it symbolically and regularly. I humbly apologize to the man in the Pittsburgh hot corner, Richie Hebner, for spoking him. Multiple times. Not my fault he showed up in wax packs with the alarming regularity of the telephone bill.

    Most of my baseball cards – and one errant pack of basketball cards, whose story figures prominently into my little sports montage – lead back to Grandpa Herman’s general store. The prime funding timing and sources for my little cardboard empire were spring and summer afternoons spent at my grandparents’ house. Each invariably brought a trip across the street to the general store, where the candy assortment seemed to stretch from the front door to the darker regions where the meat cases began and younger interests faded. Grandpa Herman’s store evolved from a carriage stop; Smithburg is midpoint – the way the crow flies or the carriage is drawn – between New York City and Philadelphia. A disorganized mosaic of office supplies, hardware, cold cuts, and engine parts defined the boundaries of the store, only Grandpa knew everything’s true location but you never had to ask twice for any item. You could get a tank of gas pumped and the same person (frequently my father) made you a sandwich, tossed in a bag with carriage bolts and some oil (sandwich or crankcase, your choice). The shelves ran floor to ceiling; the days ran dark to dark o’clock.

    Somewhere near the front door, just to the right, where the grandchildren could look up at Grandpa, and he would look down over the counter to his grandchildren, were boxes of Topps baseball cards, seated proudly on the candy shelves next to the Necco wafers. On Sundays when the family congregated at our house, Grandpa brought an all-star selection from his general store along in the trunk, a true grab bag with all of the younger cousins bobbing for whatever goodies we chose without visual cues. The unmistakable feel of a pack of cards in your hands, the promise of what lay inside, is a juvenile lottery ticket on which there is no way to lose. Even if you get your fourteenth Richie Hebner card.

    One Sunday in the late 60s, several of us – the kinder, as our grandparents referred to us in Yiddish – popped into the store. In the floor, near the register, was a small trap door that functioned as a safe at one point. Inside were all of the trappings that didn’t quite make the candy aisle, including a dusty box of Topps trading cards. We were handed several unidentified wax packs of cards, with Grandpa’s shrug indicating that he didn’t know what they were either, but his smile said that he was happy we’d take them. We tore into the packs that afternoon, realized that they were basketball cards of some unknown vintage. Faced with players who looked like our parents in their wedding pictures, from cities of uncertain basketball heritage (Syracuse? There were professional teams in Syracuse?) they were shoved into a back pocket while we hoped for another dip into the paper goody bag once we had crossed back to the house side of the street. Those hoops cards were dumped into the big briefcase along with the rest of my cardboard memories, where Willie Stargell, Ted Williams, and a collection of Pittsburgh Pirates (including a pristine Richie Hebner) sat protected from the elements. Most men will tell you that their baseball card collections died a more pitiful death than transit through the washing machine – they were thrown out during some room purge; my parents simply insisted that I clean out my room, and the briefcase moved with me to Massachusetts where the pieces of the Topps jigsaw puzzle would finally slide together.

    It’s necessary to fast-forward to adulthood and my own married life. Taking a hint from the numismatists, sports cards today are slabbed and graded; once they become an investment they are no longer something you can touch to enjoy. That robs you of the feeling, of the connection, that this was little cardboard token was part of someone’s life, perhaps part of your own. I adore my old Willie Stargell cards that are far from mint condition with perfect centering and sharp color because they survived four tours of duty in my favorite school pants. Willie Stargell went to science class with me and sat where wallet and car keys sit today. The briefcase full of cardboard wonder came to rest at our house in Burlington, Massachusetts, where, between moves, I decided to examine its contents more thoroughly and was again caught blindside by sports tradition.

    One of the advantages of living in a major east coast city is that the sports teams tend to have long histories, so it’s easy to pattern match childhood possessions against popular culture. Those nondescript wax packs of cards from Grandpa Herman were a set of 1957 Topps basketball cards, the first year such a set was produced. In the middle of the pack was a man in a kelly green uniform, sporting the #14 of the Boston Celtics: Bob Cousy. In my single-digit years this never registered with me; he was another guy with the wrong ball in a strangely lit picture. With the briefcase open, and the business of my cards displayed before me, I immediately recognized one of the saints of Boston sports. Gently slipped him into a plastic protective sleeve, then and ever since that afternoon Cousy runs above my desk, frozen in time dribbling toward the hoop, evoking the voice of late Celtics broadcaster Johnny Most with “a notion, going right to left”. Cousy’s backstory doesn’t involve basketball for me; it’s about my grandfather, a first generation immigrant to America; the humble beginnings of a major sports derivative business; boys and the little swatches of youth that we cling to forever. Or at least until we decide to part with them via eBay.

    Fast forward to early 2005 when I am stuck at home with a broken leg, battling cabin fever, making it time to once again dip into my cardboard history. If the cards don’t hold my interest, there must be someone else who can put a time and place to a face, a quote, or a number left open on a checklist. Turns out that 1957 Topps basketball cards have a following somewhere north of ice hockey in Florida but less than current all-star baseball players; there’s significant activity and action as I lovingly photograph, describe and post most of the cards. Cousy watches the whole thing, immobilized in his plastic trap, as my trading business gains critical size and momentum. I am momentarily in middle school again, and thanks to the crutches, just as clumsy.

    Riding shotgun in the wax pack with Cousy was a player named George Yardley who set the single-season scoring record in the 57-58 season. Yardley was the first player to score 2,000 points in a season, and is enshrined at the other end of Massachusetts in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Even if you follow basketball, it’s likely you didn’t know that much about George Yardley, or any other NBA baller from that season. They were, and are, in the words of someone who met most of those players, “very nice, humble men”. Nice and humble don’t trump “valuable in this condition,” and my eBay transactions continue. This results in the hobbyist’s own worst enabler: more money to spend on the hobby.

    Sales of old basketball cards fuel purchases of hockey cards. This dates back to the beginning of our family love affair with our favorite New Jersey Devil, Patrik Elias, when I asked Ben “What if we try to collect every Patrik Elias hockey card?” It seemed a simple way to get him interested in one of my childhood pastimes, a simpler diversion in a day of video games and movies on demand. Simple questions have complex answers. Obvious simple questions have very complex, difficult, expensive answers. “Every Patrik Elias” card tops out at close to a thousand unique items, ranging from the simple rookie card printed before anyone in New Jersey knew that the terminal, accented Czech “s” sounds like an “sh”, to cards highlighting milestones and carrying the ever-popular slices of game equipment. A first approximation of buying all of them would make it the most expensive hobby that didn’t land me in the hospital.

    When they became big business, sports cards also lost their childhood. They became a stock market in their own right, with the card companies annually creating new products with ever-decreasing print runs. Today, sports cards are about numbered editions, jersey cards, game-used equipment cards, short-print (fewer than average) run, and rookie cards. They are about acquisition and ownership, not knowledge and collecting. However, they still have the ability to make adult men think about days spent looking at the faces of heroes, arrayed before them in a system that only made sense at the time, gazing back at us.

    Starting with current cards selected from packs, and adding small “player sets” picked up on eBay, we had a good starting point. A year of more precise searching, bidding and research brought us more than halfway through An Illustrated History of Patrik Elias, in full color and mint condition. At that time, Ben and I hit what most collectors think of as the “hard ones” – the difficult cards were what remained as empty spaces in our collection; the easy finds were found and now equal combinations of money and luck were required. Immediately after becoming flush with hobby funding from I discover the existence of the Elias “Country of Origin” card. With some mix of bravado and stupidity, I decide I’m going to find one.

    Sadly, there may only be one to find. The Beckett Price Guide, de facto authorities on sports card values, doesn’t list a price for it due to scarcity. This puts its value in collectors terms roughly on par with the Hope Diamond, with only a slightly better chance of finding one in the wild. Supposedly there are a dozen that have been printed, but I’ve only seen proof of two in existence; a picture on a web site and an eBay auction that I managed to misjudge. I search eBay listings and online catalogs to no avail; there are no more Elias Country of Origin cards than in-the-wild large bore diamonds to be found in New Jersey. That’s when luck comes into play, as one of the two is re-listed on eBay and I simply bid until it’s mine. I exchange the price of a good dinner for a small rectangle of high-gloss paper, an inch-tall picture of Patrik Elias on the side, and a square inch of jersey real estate wedged in the middle. Without eBay, I would have been forced to go to card shows, trawl through dealer inventory, and simply hope that a 3 ounce card and a 250 pound man crossed paths with a “do you know” radix of no more than two. The minor miracle urged along by good obsessive-compulsive online shopping habits lets me have a daily reminder of a great day involving two generations of heroes.

    Three winters earlier, Ben and I attended the 2002 NHL All-Star Game in Los Angeles. It was a magic weekend of “guy time,” watching hockey, talking about hockey, glimpsing athletes in and around the hotel, going to parties and generally celebrating in a city known for celebrations. Elias was voted onto the All-Star team, wearing a maroon jersey for the World Team, facing off against teammates Scott Stevens and Martin Brodeur skating for the North American All-Stars. During the pre-game warm-ups, Ben ran to the glass, watching the players skate without helmets, hoping to catch a glimpse of Elias as he sped by. Before the game started, the 1980 Olympic hockey team was introduced. My heart jumped up into my throat, nearly a quarter century of my own hockey memory looking back at me, waving again from the ice, this time in person. I quickly and quietly explained the Miracle on Ice to Ben, letting the video montage and the rink announcer provide the details. Two weeks later, at the opening of the Salt Lake City Olympics, we smiled again having seen this hand tipped as the 1980 hockey team lit the torch. Those are the moments that forever bond a father and son; not the winning or championships; just seeing heroes as men, made human without helmets or equipment, smiling for all to see. During that warmup period, when the players and the fans were all smiles as well, I captured one badly focused picture of Ben looking back at me, Elias looking back to the blue line, both of their blond curls in the frame, with a red, white and blue Czech flag jersey patch on Elias’ shoulder visible just past Ben. If you know countries of origin and hairstyle, you can figure out the puzzle, otherwise it’s another blurry picture taken in a major sports arena by an enthusiastic father. I love that picture for both reasons.

    When the bubble envelope containing my personal Honus Wagner equivalent arrives, I wait for Ben so we can open it together. Nestled deep inside the mailer is a smaller package, wrapped with card protectors and tape, a hard shell inside the soft outside. We peel it open, and I show Ben the card with a jersey patch segment in the middle, a tiny window on a Czech flag waving to us, having gone from Elias’ shoulder to our kitchen through a card manufacturer. The look on his face tells me that he gets it immediately; he’s seen that player in that jersey with that patch, and we have the picture to prove we were there when the jersey and patch were game-worn. There’s a soundly reassuring circular logic to it, value in a shared memory far greater than the price tag. Even though our Elias cardboard mosaic now contains hundreds of little rectangles, there’s only one that sits out on display in my office. It frames a small lineup of a plastic-cased Bob Cousy, a well-worn Willie Stargell, and a flag-waving Patrik Elias. It’s the poem of multiple family generations, a haiku tinged with regret that I didn’t know my grandfather well enough, but hope and promise for what and who comes next.

    Ecstatic with this happy end, I still have cards to mail out as payments trickle in, completing the flow of funds that funded my mental excursion back to Los Angeles. On the way to the post office with the George Yardley card, I notice that it’s addressed to someone with family name Yardley. This cannot be a coincidence, so I email him as soon as the bubble mailer is en route, asking if he’s related. The buyer returns stories of professional basketball players who are nice and humble and a George Yardley card is his own Country of Origin: his father is pictured on the front. He was putting together sets of his father’s sports cards for each of his kids. My grandfather’s desire to clean up his safe area, followed many years later by my desire to clean up piles of old trading cards, will connect another generation of Yardleys to their grandfather. I’ve returned whatever karmic balance in the universe that caused the Elias Country of Origin to re-appear out of the wild, as both Yardleys and I have bridged generations with a story told in pictures of our childhoods.

    The value of memorabilia is the tensile strength with which it ties a thing to a point in your or your family’s life. I doubt Nick Swisher will be in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but his photograph on my wall of signed pictures reminds me of the summer of 2009 when daughter Elana and I watched the Yankees together en route to a World Series win. It’s more Richie Hebner than Reggie Jackson, but it makes the memory tangible as well. The artifacts make poems, the poems tell stories, and the fire of those stories forges family tradition.