Archive for the ‘Music and Other Stuff’ Category

AHL cover fullWhen I was a kid, I used to have a hell of a time convincing some of my more conservative relatives that popular music was a worthy vocation for a thinking adult. “All that yelling and screaming,” they’d say. “You learn three chords on a loud, out of tune guitar, scream into a microphone and you’re a rock star.

“For God’s sake, you wanna make that your life’s work, boy?”

“Louie Louie,” they’d shout. “Sgt. Peppers,” I’d fire back.

I never would have told Uncle Louis, of course, but as I got older and began working six nights a week in nightclub cover bands, I too began developing a few doubts about this music thing. Especially after the night’s third rendition of “We are Family.”

But all I had to do during the drive home was crank up the first few bars of any album that had earned a permanent slot in my car’s CD rack (uh, cassette rack) and all doubt about the worthiness of making music vanished. If I could make music like that – music with so much skill, so much heart, smarts and honesty — I would consider my life well spent.

Jill Freeman’s exceptional new album, “A Handmade Life,” is my car’s most recent addition.

Truth is, this album sucked me in within the first few notes of the opening cut, “The Light that Leads Me There.” With only a strumming ukulele behind her, Freeman’s achingly pretty and heartfelt search for kindness and decency let me know that at the very least I was in for some fine singing and thoughtful poetry.

What I got – and continue to get (I’m listening to “Welcome to the Bonehouse” as I write) – is 54 minutes of masterfully written (Freeman), produced (Joel Wachbrit) and arranged (Freeman and Wachbrit) mini-adventures, featuring top-drawer performances by LA’s A-list players and vocal performances by Freeman that range from gorgeous to bawdy to unnerving, in a perfect melding of story-telling credibility and vocal technique.

It is not easy to categorize this music. Think guitar-oriented rhythm section with acoustic bass, violin, woodwinds, banjo, Uilleann pipes, accordion and percussion supporting amurdertown gp 4 color light-toned, expressive alto — all performing an alt-folk, jazz-tinged, Kurt Weill-ian version of Jungian interpretation of fairy tales.

Yeah, another one of those.

And no, I’m not kidding about the fairy tale part:

From Freeman’s website: “Fairy tales are like dreams, filled with deep symbolism about the human psyche. They carry the voice of our subconscious. I wanted to dive into those dreamy stories, swim deep, and see what I came back with. This album is the expression of what I found there.”

The result of Freeman’s Jungian dip with Hans Christian Andersen, the Brothers Grimm and other fantasists whose names and stories had, until now, been gathering dust in the pre-school folds of my brain, are some of the most compelling song-stories I’ve heard. Often dark, sometimes fun and funny, always clever and literate, Freeman’s words take us to places, people and things we used to know but probably haven’t visited in a while.

Cinderella:

Walking on Glass what a big brave girl
Rags all gone and hair all curled
Those glistening shards on your tiny feet
Coulda cut you to ribbons on the cobblestone street
Coulda sliced a heel or lost a toe
But you did the Reel, even Do-Si-Do’d

Walking on Glass… Walking on Glass

-From “Walking on Glass”

Wizard of Oz:

Where once his empty brain was clear
It now was strained with stabbing fear
And jabbing, poking thoughts – a tear
Rolls down his blank expression

The Wizard placed pins in his head
Now, this will make you sharp!” he’d said
And so began what finally lead
To Scarecrow’s great depression

– From “Completely Unaware”

Little Red Riding Hood:

I love sitting
In my gramma’s front porch swing
We shuck peas there
And I listen to her sing

Oh her songs, they
Make me shiver as I laugh
Songs of young girls
Who are stolen on the path

 Songs of beasts
That devour them
Leaving nothing where they’ve tread
But a little bit of Red
A little bit of Red

– From “A Little Bit of Red”

Gliding easily from protagonist to omniscient narrator – often within the same tune – Freeman breathes life into these wide-ranging and varied stories and characters with energy and honesty – and in a few of the more macabre tales, with downright menace. Freeman’s light, airy approach to the lines below definitely pinned the needle on my Sweeney Todd-o-meter:

Oh, you came in then, with a maiden, fair
And you killed her with barely a snap
Then chopped her in pieces, they flew everywhere
Her ring finger fell in my lap

– From “Sweetheart My Dream is Not Over”

This song works so well on so many levels, “Sweetheart My Dream is Not Over” may be the poster child of why so much of this album works.

Based on a tale from the Grimm Brothers collection, “The Robber Bridegroom,” “Sweetheart My Dream is Not Over” is a tale about fear, sadistic murder and dismemberment. Of course, Freeman and crew begin the tune with the sweetest sounding pipes you ever heard and light guiro/tambourine percussion, playing at a brisk-ish three-quarter time.

Freeman joins the fun with…

Love, I dreamed that you lived in a lonely place
And we were to marry that spring
Well, I walked through your house finding nar’ a trace
Of friendliness there, not a thing

As the verse ends, an even sweeter piano arpeggio replaces the pipes while a bird warns Freeman’s protagonist about her fiancé, the guy with the knife–

… will cut you in two, then laugh as your blood drains away…

A light childlike chorus sung in unison to a lone piano and breath percussion raises the spook factor considerably.

Ashes on daffodils, ashes on leaves, ashes on innocent clover…

The first chorus ends with just Freeman and Sara Parkins sublimely strange violin–

But sweetheart my dream is not over…

–setting the listener up for the full band’s entrance and the blood-letting to come.

It isn’t just the track and vocal working against subject matter that make this cut so darned effective — it’s the surprise of it all.

This album is full of surprises: Parkins’ wonderfully demented solo and Steve Nelson’s snaky acoustic bass on this tune; the C-tuned guitar intro (was it Wachbrit or Freeman?) and Mike Nelson’s soaring clarinet in “Letters From Murdertown”; Debra Dobkins’ innovative, driving percussion; April Hava Schenkman’s mad voices and the, uh, unusual backing vocals in “Welcome to the Bonehouse”; Candy Girard’s wonderful reel-like fiddle on “A Handmade Life”; Freeman’s piano and spoken poetry in “The Nightingale”; Wachbrit’s rhythmic banjo in the chorus of “Eyes of Fire”… Hell, even the unexpected quarter-note rest after “…banshee” and before “…heart of hearts” in that same chorus makes me smile every time I hear it.

Of course, the surprises only work because the foundation from which they leap are so fucking solid. Wachbrit’s innovative and cohesive production and consistently fine guitar playing throughout, along with solid drumming and percussion by Dobkins, Robert Perkins and Dave Beyer , Nelson’s bass, and keyboards by Tommy Reeves and John “JT” Thomas firmly ground the songs as only fine players – fine players who like each other, that is – can.

Which brings me back to Freeman’s voice. Again, it’s the strong foundation of Freeman’s technical vocal skill that frees her up to give such artistic, expressive – and often unusual – performances. Jill Freeman is truly a singer’s singer –- pitch, control, crystal clearJilly-2 enunciation… and my lord, her vibrato. In the hands of a lesser singer, vibrato can be an evil weapon – think Ethel Merman or Axl Rose. But Freeman’s choice and control of her vibrato, whether wide and slow, narrow and quick or nonexistent always seems to be what the performance requires. I think I’ll write a textbook titled “Jill Freeman’s Vibrato” which would soon become a required primer in every voice class, if not a N.Y. Times bestseller.

Not to mention, how many singers in the land can rhyme “essential” with “pencil” with such command?

In every respect, Jill Freeman’s “A Handmade Life” is a triumph. Everyone involved with this project should be very proud, indeed. It is a work filled with the kind of intelligence and care that used to erase my doubts about the importance of popular music on my drives home from the club.

As I slide this CD back into my car’s rack, my only wish is that Uncle Louis and my naysayer relatives were still alive, taunting me with “Louie Louie.”

“A Handmade Life,” I’d fire back.

Hear what I mean about “A Handmade Life” at JillFreeman.com

LungCACXR

Not really mine, but I thought it looked good. Thanks Wikipedia. I’ll post the real X-ray when I get it from my doctor.

That we had actually arrived at the hospital at the designated time made me a little nervous. Jessie and I hadn’t been on time for anything in thirty years, so the mere fact that we had gotten there on the dot — at five-thirty in the morning, no less — reminded me how serious the next few hours would be.

The Kaiser pre-op area was an enormous, fluorescent-lighted room with at least 15 bed-cubicles situated along its perimeter. By my count, ten of these little cubicles were now occupied. In just a few minutes, ten souls in various states of disrepair, including your narrator, Russell S. Buchanan, would be cut open and — if all went as planned — repaired.

While we waited for them to come wheel me to the operating room Jess posed an interesting question.

“Hey, how do you think they make sure they’re working on the right — I mean, the correct — side?”

Hmmm. The confusing way she asked her question, with the homonymic “right,” made the question all the more compelling. My left side was the target, of course. But how would the surgical team know that for sure before they started carving me up?

As I began planning my escape, my surgeon, Dr. Yakoub, entered the cubicle, introduced himself to Jess then signed his name under my left armpit with a black Sharpie. Whew.

______________

Let’s back up a little, though. What brought me to this world of scalpels, gurneys and black Sharpies began in January with a persistent variation in my body temperature, including a slight fever. There was also a bit of a worry about the weight I’d been losing for about a year and a half. Even though I had shed about 30 lbs. over six months, the weight loss was somewhat more explainable and less concerning for a few reasons. We had purposely been eating smaller portions to lose weight over much of that time — Jess had lost weight too. Also, I had been walking my dogs religiously at 4:30 every day for up to an hour, up and down the calorie-burning hills around my house. Not to mention, I’m about to turn 64. If my dad’s “spindly shanks” — as my mom called dad’s legs during his autumn years — were any indication, losing weight is just something male Buchanans do when they get old. There was also the comfort in knowing that my Anthem/Blue Cross doctor, who was aware of my weight loss, had given me a clean bill of health just two months before, after giving me a complete check-up that included a chest X-ray. Oops.

But the temperature fluctuation was another matter. I’d wake up many mornings with my thermometer reading 100. An hour later, back to my normal low of 97.7. Two hours later, 96.7. Then back up to 101. No cough, no shortness of breath, no other symptoms at all. I even bought a snazzy new digital thermometer to be sure the problem wasn’t in my analog one, which had probably been handed down through ten generations of Buchanans. I went to see my new GP at Kaiser, Dr. Slingenberg.

Based on my fevers and what the chest X-ray indicated was some wispiness in the lower lobe of my left lung, Dr. Slingenberg figured I had managed to develop a bit of pneumonia there. So the doc wrote a prescription for antibiotics and I went home.

As you might have guessed by now, that was not the end of the story. Dr. Slingenberg called a few days later.

“Hello, Mr. Buchanan. It’s probably nothing to worry about, but remember that wispiness in your chest pictures?”

“Uh-huh?”

“Well, I’d like you to have another chest X-ray. Something about that wispiness looked unusual.”

Unexplained weight loss, mystery fevers, lifelong smoker of cigarettes? I had hoped to live my entire life without hearing the words “you,” “chest,” “X-ray” and “unusual” uttered in one sentence by my doctor. But Dr. Slingenberg had just scuttled that hope.

Even with my cancer indicators, though, the chance of me actually having lung cancer was remote. No cough, no malaise, no cancer markers in my blood tests. Not to mention, nobody in my family — grandparents, parents or sister — had developed any type of cancer during their long lives. Cancer does not like my DNA, I kept telling Jess and myself… again and again.

In fact, the first time cancer seemed like a real possibility to me was right after my second chest X-ray. It was something about the contrast in the way the tech spoke to me before and after the session — the way he said “good luck” after he’d had time to look at the pictures. Not only had there been a subtle change in the way he spoke, but his tone and transition sounded vaguely familiar. Then I remembered — it was the same way Dr. Slingenberg sounded during his last call about the wispiness. Both of these guys’ voices had become more intimate and personal — more careful and compassionate.

The second X-ray again showed signs of trouble in my left lung’s lower lobe and proved to be the healthcare equivalent of the umpire yelling, “play ball.” Batteries of tests were ordered — blood tests, breathing tests, CAT-scan — and, of course, my first bronchoscopy.

Imagine a colonoscopy. Now, imagine a little higher. Rather than inserting a camera in your rectum to examine your bowels, the camera goes into your mouth then down into your lungs. In my case, the bronchoscopy confirmed what the CAT-scan had indicated — and what my doctors had suspected — a mass about the size of a pecan was growing inside the bronchus of my left lung.

As an inveterate body abuser — eat-what-I-want, smoker, ex-dope fiend, former touring rock-and-roller (and all the sleepless nights and debauchery that suggests) — I believe it is a minor miracle that I had, until now, never experienced ill health of any sort, let alone serious ill health. In other words, I am a very grateful guy who would be the last person on earth to shake his fist at the sky and shout “Why me, lord?” I know darned well why. But at the same time I must admit that all this talk of cancer and diseased lungs was beginning to put me in a philosophical mood. I began thinking of shortcuts I might take that would complete the album I’ve been working on for the last three years. I mean, dying with 14 almost-finished songs trapped in my computer would have made me very cranky in the afterlife. I found myself reviewing my life a lot and began worrying about Jess worrying about me. Hell, I even worried about my dogs, and how distraught they would be — however briefly (squirrel!) — if the cancer killed me.

As it turned out, my morbid musings were unnecessary. Though they couldn’t be sure without biopsy — and biopsy of the mass would not be possible until its removal — Dr Yakoub and my pulmonologist, Dr. Drucker, were both confident that mine was a rare, slow growing, non-metastasizing (in my case) type of cancer known as a carcinoid, a type of growth that until recently was not even considered a cancer. Apparently, I had picked the right kind of tumor.

However, it did have to be cut out of my body. The date of my deliverance was set for April 14.

_____________

Anyhow, a few minutes after Dr. Yakoub signed the correct side of my chest, my anesthesiologist, Dr. Chung, came in and introduced herself, then left. I sat on the gurney marveling at all the activity going on around me.

“Honey, I know it’s idiotic, but I can’t help feeling guilty about all this,” I said to Jess.

“Guilty about what?” answered a male voice on my right. It was Dr. Yakoub, whom I thought had left the cubicle but was only hidden by a computer cart.

Great, I thought. Not only does Dr. Yakoub think I just called him “honey,” but now I get to spout useless guilt in front of him, as well.

“Well, here I am with lung cancer brought on by stupid life choices — namely smoking — and now I’m blithely expecting all these people to snap to and come to my rescue. It just feels wrong and irresponsible and unfair. Hell, I don’t even have any pain… ”

Dr. Yakoub cut me off as he continued typing away at the computer. “Oh, your carcinoid has nothing to do with smoking,” he said. “We’re not really sure why carcinoids occur.”

That’s the last thing I remember before partially regaining consciousness in the recovery room. According to Jess, I was fairly miserable when I awoke – lots of shallow breathing and grimacing. I remember being wheeled through the halls to my hospital room, where apparently, I insisted upon placing my oxygen mask on my forehead.

My four-hour surgery had been successful. My growth — or “friend,” as Dr. Drucker called it, was biopsied immediately after it was removed and turned out, in fact, to be a carcinoid — a blessed little carcinoid. Dr. Yakoub also found a touch of pneumonia in my lower lobe behind the mass, just as Dr. Slingenberg had surmised.

I spent four days in one of the many rooms of the post-op wing of Kaiser Panorama City, the same hospital that took my tonsils 50 years ago – my only other surgery and hospital stay. Sadly, they were in the process of tearing down the actual building of my tonsilectomy, but I got to see its gutted shell from a fourth floor window every day during my doctor-prescribed walk around the wing.

In just four days the post-op staff at Panorama took my already good opinion of Kaiser and put it in the stratosphere. Nurses, kitchen staff, on-call doctors, housekeeping — every single person I dealt with during my stay — was professional, upbeat, caring, smart and pleasant to be around. I now have an appreciation for nurses that borders on worship. These gals and guys on the fourth floor were constantly busy with patient medications, bathroom assistance, assorted emergencies, etc., but always came to my room right away when I hit that button. They even walked the floor with me the first couple of days. One of my fondest memories will be my petite Philippine/American nurse and me strolling down the corridor, belting out old Chi-lites and Commodores hits (she belted, I kind of grunted and winced), while I guided my IV tree with one hand and valiantly tried with the other to keep my butt from peeking out through my half-open hospital gown.

As a sworn enemy of America’s health-as-commodity, private insurer-based system and Anthem/Blue Cross survivor, I can’t believe I am now going to sing the praises of a health insurance company, but here I go: Ever since I joined Kaiser Permanente in December I have been in various stages of awe and admiration. The past month, with all my appointments, tests and such has only intensified my appreciation of this behemoth org.

I’m new at Kaiser so I’m still trying to figure out what makes this company so good at its job while others continue to fail so miserably. Of course, Kaiser’s one-stop shopping, with labs, diagnostics and doctors of all specialties located in one place is a godsend. With Anthem I’d still be waiting for my first X-ray, which, if approved, would likely be conducted at an imaging center twenty miles away at rush hour. Also, I assume one big reason my doctors Slingenberg, Drucker and Yakoub have been so clear and patient with me and so expert with my case is that with Kaiser handling the administration, traffic, marketing and other non-medical duties doctors traditionally loathe, Kaiser doctors are free to be healers. Well-informed healers, at that; according to my Internet research, doctors are often flummoxed by the very uncommon carcinoid. Not my Kaiser doctors, though. They were all on the carcinoid trail well before the bronchoscopy pictures all but confirmed the theory.

Overall, Kaiser seems to have hit upon a magical formula of super-efficient, digitally-driven healthcare administration combined with absolutely top-level employees. The computers take care of the pain-in-the-butt-but-important stuff, such as parking (digital readout of available spaces and their location) and blood-test traffic (take a bakery-type number at lab entrance and wait for your number to be called. I’ve yet to wait longer than 20 minutes, usually far less time). The employees take care of the actual healing and support duties along with their job of representing the organization to the patient and making the patient feel valued.

________

Well, I am home now. My carcinoid is probably in a landfill somewhere or may still be in Panorama City, getting to know my tonsils. I feel surprisingly good, considering that just nine days ago the good Dr. Yakoub opened me up, bent my ribs out of the way, cut through a few centimeters of my muscle, adipose and lung tissue and then sewed me shut.

At the risk of diminishing the wonderful sympathy I’ve been getting from Jess and the few others who knew about this thing, I must confess that the pain has been curiously minimal. Minus the hours after the procedure, which I really don’t remember very well, and the occasional attention-getting tweak from my drainage tubes, which were removed before I was discharged, the discomfort has really been much closer to annoying than excruciating. Granted, I was taking Percocet every four hours with an occasional shot of Dilaudid for four days, but even so I expected the pain to be much worse.

I’m glad it wasn’t.

If you put on Ann Kelly’s latest CD, “Promises,” close your eyes and imagine what the owner of this rich, sultry voice looks like, your mind will probably conjure up a hi-res image of Kelly by the time you reach the first chorus.

Keep listening and the slinky horn lines, jazzy piano riffs and bluesy guitar under the voice will likely morph your Kelly mind-picture into something closely resembling the CD’s cover art – right down to her trench coat, puckered lips and the urban setting.Promises_front_cover[1]

Now you’re ready to experience the album as the multimedia event nature intended.

“Promises” is an album of mood music. It’s difficult to put the Kelly mood into words, exactly, but I know it has a lot to do with dry martinis, French perfume, Aston Martins and parties at Hef’s. With Kelly’s sensuous and often fearlessly emotive vocals setting the tone, “Promises” is mood music for grown-ups: urbane, sexy and expertly made.

The six-song, Mark Ross-produced EP opens with the upbeat “These are the Good Times.” Tight, infectious horn lines, a standout solo by guitarist Tim Pierce and Kelly’s light and confident delivery let you know you’re about to spend time with pros.

“Bluest Blue,” Kelly’s “Dear John” to a doomed affair, is the record’s hardest rocking track, featuring a credible, emotional read by Kelly, fiery leads by Pierce and some extremely ballsy and clever horn lines.

The up-tempo shuffle, “Move on Over,” delivers some of the strongest performances — vocal and instrumental — and some of the best lyrical turns on the CD. The song opens with Kelly’s scornful dissection of a gold-digger on the prowl: “…the pretty little parasite is looking for a host,” then passionately warns the host-to-be away from the vixen with …“better beware, there’s perfume in the air.” Kelly’s mix of worldly swagger, impish fun and rhythmic instinct nails this one.

Brandon Fields’ soaring tenor sax solo, Ross’ syncopated piano, playfully inventive horns and top-flight backing vocals by Janis Liebhart and Lynn Fanelli all conspire to make “Move on Over” as fun as it is musically rewarding.Promises__back_cover

Come to think of it, there is a refreshingly playful spark running through this entire album and everyone involved is obviously in on the grin.

Case in point: Lee Thornburg’s wah-wah trumpet intro (over scratchy needle-on-vinyl effect, no less) on “I’m Your Friend,” is not only a good example of the album’s wit, but is also one of the best bits of flutter-tonguing horn pathos ever blown. When Nick Lane’s trombone joins Thornburg later in the tune for a kind of mano a mano, New Orleans-style horn-orama, its fun is exceeded only by its masterful playing.

In “…Friend,” Kelly tries to extract commitment from a tentative lover with a whispered growl that is so damned sexy, you can’t believe she has to make her case at all. “You love me when it’s easy, when the slipper fits…”, sighs Kelly, then turns up the heat with “…I long for you to comfort me.” If this doesn’t work on the guy, I’m afraid shock therapy is the only answer.

On the slow bluesy title track, “Promises,” Ross’ dramatic string arrangement provides the perfect environment for Kelly’s impassioned vocal and Pierce’s dynamic and thoughtful guitar work throughout.

Which brings us to the final cut – the exquisite and eclectic “If You Only Knew Me.” It’s funny, just the other day I was saying to the wife, “How come nobody ever makes records with a reggae beat, a Montmartre accordion and a Duane Eddy guitar, featuring a Marlene Dietrich-ish vocal in English and French anymore?”

In this medium/slow, incredibly infectious loper, Ross has managed to combine these disparate instrumental elements in a way that feels so natural and easy you have to remind yourself you’re in uncharted territory. As interesting and inspired as this track is, though, it is Kelly’s performance that will stay with you.

One part “Three-Penny Opera,” two parts Piaf-Dietrich love child, this is Kelly’s most evocative read on the album. Purring such lines as “…now we begin the sweet taste of sin” and “…your foolish heart will know that I play for keeps,” in between the tastiest accordion and soprano sax lines this side of La Rive Gauche – well, let’s just say Kelly had me at bonjour.

Kelly’s uninhibited vocal approach, Mark Ross’ crisp production and innovative-yet-catchy arrangements plus ace work by some of the best musicians and singers in Los Angeles have demonstrated once again that having fun and making good music needn’t be mutually exclusive endeavors.

“Promises,” L.A.-based Ann Kelly’s sophomore effort, has just the right blend of fun, drama and musical expertise to recommend it as a highly enjoyable listen.

For samples of “Promises,” visit http://www.annkellymusic.com/store

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From the first few bars of Ann Kelly’s new EP, Petals and Thorns, you know you’re dealing with professionals here. This slick, six-song package features Kelly’s expressive vocals supported by top-flight playing from a group of L.A. studio stalwarts. All in all, this pop-jazz/adult-contemporary outing is a testament to the value of musicos who know what the hell they’re doing.

The CD’s lyrical themes of love lost, love soon to be lost, lost love’s revenge and loneliness are confidently and credibly handled by Kelly, whose voice and phrasing bring to mind a deeper Diana Krall. From her dusky, blue-smoke delivery of the bluesy “She Dances Alone,” to the I’m-wise-to-you-buster vibe of “Who do You Think You’re Foolin’?” to the snarky irony of the infectious, up-tempo “It Must be Good to be King,” Kelly’s performances strike the right notes of assertiveness, playfulness and hurt — a femme fatale undermined by a vulnerable heart.

My favorite cut, the Exotica-tinged “Between the Lines,” is Kelly and band at their mood-setting best. Kelly’s laid-back phrasing and honest, intimate delivery gives the listener a near-voyeuristic glimpse into a doomed affair. Perhaps, more than on any other cut, this mid-tempo gem is where the players demonstrate their top-notch recording chops. In lesser hands, two guitars, a tenor sax and keyboard all trying to lend color could easily sound like an explosion at a pawnshop. But here, guitarists Tim Pierce’s and Tim Kobza’s exquisitely light and echoed fills and Duane Eddy-esqe twang seamlessly compliment and play off of pianist Mark Ross’ elegant, jazzy runs and saxist Danny Pelfrey’s nuanced flavorings, which blossom after the second chorus into a beautifully lyrical and thoughtful solo.

Another standout, the jazzy “Undone Without You,” has Kelly shredding the boundaries of cool. Playful, yearning and above all, sexy, Kelly’s plea to an AWOL lover has an alluring Peggy Lee-meets-Garbo (on the low notes) quality to it that begs the question, who in his right mind would leave? Complete with walking double-bass, octave guitar, libidinous saxophone and what may go down in history as the coolest, most understated piano riffing ever, “Undone Without You” is as fun as it is supremely musical.

If there is a problem with Petals and Thorns, it’s the record’s tendency toward sameness on repeated listening. Of course, one listener’s sameness is another listener’s consistency of sound, but personally, on the next Ann Kelly effort I’d like to hear Kelly open up her higher register a bit more and maybe add more variation to the design and instrumentation of the production.

But, all picking of nits aside — this EP is a thoroughly rewarding listen. With strong, catchy tunes written by Kelly and Ross, Ross’ crisp, uncluttered production and arrangements, and standout performances by pros who obviously still love music, Petals and Thorns is a collection of well conceived and extremely well executed songs that should get lots of radio action. A solid first outing from L.A.’s Ann Kelly.

 Hear samples of Petals and Thorns at www.annkellymusic.com.

Debris on the Pacoima Junior High School Athletic Field

Debris on the Pacoima Junior High School Athletic Field

A few minutes after 11:00 AM on January 31, 1957, teacher John Buchanan began recording the graduation ceremony being held for 800 students gathered in the San Fernando Valley’s Pacoima Junior High School auditorium. Approximately ten minutes later in the sky above the nearby San Gabriel Mountains an F-89 jet slammed into a new DC-7, rendering both aircraft uncontrollable. 

What Buchanan’s recording ultimately captured that morning was the sound of a tragedy.

Halfway through the recording — immediately after graduation speaker Linda Latrelle says “We have only one life to live…” —  the DC-7 can be heard plummeting into the school’s athletic field just a few hundred feet from the auditorium.

Killed in the crash were three Pacoima students, the pilot of the F-89 and the four-man crew of the DC-7, whose final words to traffic control were, “Uncontrollable–we’re spinning over the Valley. Say goodbye to everybody… we’re going in.” The navigator of the F-89 had parachuted safely to the ground immediately after his jet’s near head-on collision with the  larger aircraft.  However, dozens of students on the Pacoima gym field were injured, many seriously.

The tragedy gained national notoriety when angry Pacoima parents successfully petitioned officials to prohibit future test flights over populated areas. Though the San Fernando Valley was considerably less populated in 1957 than it is today, it was home to hundreds of thousands back then.

In 1987 the crash was spotlighted again in the movie “La Bamba” as the reason Richie Valens, the 50s rock icon and Pacoima favorite son, was afraid to fly. Two years after the Pacoima disaster, Valens was killed along with his fellow performers and tour mates,  J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson and Buddy Holly when their light plane crashed near Clear Lake, Iowa.

*

The quality of the recording is surprisingly good, considering it was recorded on dad’s ancient Wollensak reel-to-reel and that it sat in our garage for decades. The two-minute recording opens with Latrelle’s speech in progress. One minute into the recording, the faint-but-unmistakable sound of a rapidly descending aircraft crescendos into a roar of crashing airplane, immediately followed by the sounds of confusion and fear in the auditorium. The auditorium doors can be heard slamming open from the concussion of the crash. A school official tries to calm the students by announcing, “It was a jet blast. That’s all there is to it. It’s all over,” implying that the deafening sound they had just heard was a sonic boom (it was actually the plane’s wing exploding just above the ground, spraying hot oil and shrapnel in all directions). Against the sound of 800 frightened students and a distant fire bell, an unintelligible announcement is made on the P.A. when the school’s power goes out and the recording winds to a stop. As far as I know, this is the only recording of the Pacoima crash: Click on following link:

[This recording is the property of Russ Buchanan. Unauthorized duplication is prohibited]

The Pacoima crash was of particular significance to my family for a number of reasons. My father and sister were both on the Pacoima campus when it happened — my dad as a teacher and my sister Pam as a thirteen year-old student (it was her birthday). Needless to say, it was a rough few hours for my mom, who had learned of the crash but had to wait an excruciating two hours before dad called to tell her he and her daughter were OK. I can only imagine mom’s reaction to Pam’s account of the crash. Pam, who had just finished Gym, was in the P.E. office waiting for permission to retrieve the jacket she had forgotten on the athletic field when the DC-7 came down on the field. “I thought we were being bombed so I immediately dropped to the floor and assumed the ‘duck and cover’ position,” remembers Pam.

As a five-year-old kid, all I can recall of that day is seeing what appeared to be shiny bits of tin foil falling from the sky — parts of the DC-7 that had broken off after its crippling mid-air collision.

For a chilling and informative first-hand account by an individual who arrived at the school minutes after the crash, click on:  
“‘Eyewitness to the Carnage’ – A Personal Account of the 1957 Pacoima Crash”

Tea Party favorite Rep. Allen West wants people to know two very important things: He encourages his opponents to speak out at his town hall meetings… and he is armed.

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let’s play…SPOT THE REPUBLICAN

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Double-D Breast Implant Deflects Bullet

…NRA Cries Foul

A miraculous combination of manufactured voluptuousness, luck and tensile strength saved Lydia Carranza’s life last summer when a bullet fired point-blank at her heart was deflected by her double-D breast implant.

After seven months of healing, Carranza was scheduled to undergo reconstructive surgery last Friday.

Carranza’s Beverly Hills cosmetic surgeon, Dr. Ashkan Ghavami, told KTLA News he believes “her implant stopped the bullet from hitting her heart.  The bullet fragments were millimeters from her heart and her vital organs.  If not for the implant, she might not be alive.”  He added that the implant absorbed much of the bullet’s impact, limiting most of the damage to the breast itself.

                                                   NRA Issues Response

Upon hearing of Carranza’s close call, the National Rifle Association (NRA) issued the following statement to its membership:

“Although we are glad that Ms. Carranza is alive and well, we at the NRA feel we must address the growing problem of bullet-deflection by breast enhancement implants.

We believe the 2nd Amendment gives all Americans the right not only to own and use firearms, but according to our legal experts’ interpretation, it also carries an implicit protection of the right to hit intended targets without fear of ballistic deflection caused by cosmetic medical devices–devices that, left unchecked, could very well send us hurtling down a slippery slope to total gun confiscation in America.

In our ongoing struggle to protect your Constitutional rights, the NRA feels obligated to bring this issue to your attention.  As more American women opt for this type of procedure, the possibility of bullet trajectory impairment grows.  After all our efforts on behalf of American gun owners, including the defense of your right to own 30-round handgun clips, 50-round assault rifles, armor-piercing ammunition and untraceable cartridges, we believe it would be irresponsible to drop the ball on the issue of bullet deflection by breast implant.

As always, you can be sure your NRA is on the job, defending your right to total gun freedom in America.

To the manufacturers of bullet-deflecting implants and doctors who specialize in these types of anti-gun procedures: Know that the National Rifle Association has you in our sights.”

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John Buchanan taking on the funeral industry

A friend wrote the other day to ask if my dad had been on the Blacklist.

My friend had been reading about America’s waltz with fascism during the 50s when demagogic politicians and rightwing zealots attempted to ruin the lives of show folk, teachers and other public figures — sometimes with great success– for being a little too free in the Land of the Free. Dad was a professor and locally high-profile lefty political organizer/activist, and my friend figured my father had at some point endured the wrath of the House Un-American Activities Committee and Sen. Joe McCarthy’s merry band of commie hunters. He hadn’t. Dad did have problems with cops and feds later on, but in the 50s he was still in his pre-activism stage, just settling into his new job teaching at Pacoima Junior High in the San Fernando Valley, going to grad school and helping mom raise my sister and me.  The activism that would become central to his life was still a few years off. My buddy’s email got me thinking about my father’s life choice, though. What changed? What inspired this mild-mannered, soft-spoken, Mr. Chips-type academic to become a full-throated crusader for peace and social justice?

The Bandleader and the Bastard

Though dad and I never talked much about his political awakening period, I’m pretty sure it began during the civil rights era. I was about six years old when I began hearing dad talk about the plight of Negroes. Even at my tender age I noticed that TV images of Dixie cops and clan types beating up dark-skinned people would send my father into a funk. He would get very quiet. Then he’d talk to my sister and me about how immoral it was to mistreat people because of their skin color. He told us that we should always stand up to bullies of all kinds, whether they were attacking us or others. To illustrate his point he would often tell us about the time during World War II when he and mom went to see the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in mom’s hometown, Great Falls, Montana. While the band was playing, someone in the audience yelled “nigger” at Dorsey’s only black musician. Dorsey stopped the orchestra mid-song and the crowd went silent. He called out into the microphone, “You! Hey you. Yeah, you in the yellow tie.” The heckler was trying to scamper away into the crowd but couldn’t get around the throng in front of the bandstand. He finally looked up at Dorsey, who was shaking with anger and pointing down at him like a vengeful god with a trombone. Unfortunately for the yellow-tied bigot, the black trumpeter happened to be a good friend of Dorsey’s and had just returned from duty in the Pacific, where he’d been wounded. According to dad, Dorsey went crazy, yelling into the microphone about his friend’s heroism, then verbally filleting the bigot, whom he called a stupid, un-American bastard. At the end of his rant, Dorsey ordered the guy out of the dance hall and refused to continue the show until he left. Whether for noble cause or the fact that the crowd was ready to jitterbug and had shelled out good money to see Dorsey’s whole show, many in the audience sided with Dorsey, booing and hissing the guy out of the dance hall. The show went on. Though the full meaning of the tale was over my 6-year-old head, I never got tired of it. I loved hearing dad do the Tommy Dorsey parts. “Yeah, you with the yellow tie,” dad’s baritone rumbled, as he pointed at some imaginary racist in the living room. I also got a bang out of hearing dad say the word “bastard,” a word rarely heard in our house–a word I probably assumed meant bad man in a yellow tie. For my sister Pam and me, the story was a great example of someone using his position to stand up to a bully. For dad, who knows? Tommy Dorsey’s wrath might have been an important inspiration. After all, it was the kind of thing dad would soon be doing full time, only on a larger, relentless scale, against bullies ranging from Richard Nixon to the funeral industry. Inspiration or not, by the time the 60s started, dad was taking on the bullies of the world with a vengeance.

The Art of Activism

The first piece of dad’s activism I remember–helping a black family move into our whites-only neighborhood–was relatively small-scale and personal. For months after the Holmes moved in, it was dad’s job to protect the house from vandals when the family was away. There wasn’t much he could do about the rocks thrown through the Holmes’ front room window during the night, or the cross burned on their lawn one very early morning. But during dad’s watch, just the sight of him sitting on the Holmes’ front porch, grading his students’ papers, was all it took to keep the Bubba brigade off the property. I don’t know how long dad had been at it before I realized that threatening phone calls in the middle of the night and flat tires from tacks and nails scattered on our driveway weren’t part of everyone’s hearth and home, but I gradually came to understand that dad’s dedication to fairness was not shared by everyone. As for the 3 AM phone calls, we discovered that the cardboard stick from a Sugar Daddy sucker made a terrific telephone bell dampener when jammed through the proper hole in the phone’s access plate. My contribution to the struggle, of course, was to eat the Sugar Daddy. Ah, the sacrifices of activism. Sometimes dad’s protests verged on street theater. During his quixotic run for the California Assembly in the mid-60s he delivered a campaign speech at a local shopping center while stomping a bathtub full of grapes. This might have been a fine way to draw attention to the farm workers’ strike and grape boycott raging at the time, but the sight of dad in the tub, wearing his trademark Petrocelli business suit with the pant legs rolled up for the fruit-stomp, did not sit well with my teenaged notion that parents should always strive to be invisible. For weeks after, I was known to my rotten buddies as “Grape.” To dad’s supporters, though, it was a beautiful sight to behold–and it worked. Lots of people gathered to see the lunatic in a bathtub, and wound up learning why they should support Cesar Chavez’ United Farm Workers and stop eating grapes. Dad lost the Assembly race in a rout, of course, but his son’s embarrassment over his father’s unusual forms of activism soon morphed into pride and admiration. His low-key protest of the Vietnam War was particularly memorable. Every day during his lunch hour he would set up a card table full of anti-war literature next to the college flagpole. For that hour he stood silently next to the flagpole wearing an armband featuring the number of GIs killed that week. For two years.

Dad’s Final Years

Dad started in the 60s and never let up. He was still active in the Memorial Society — a consumer activist group — well into his 80s, fighting the good fight against the predatory practices of the funeral industry. A 1992 L.A. Times interview about the Memorial Society found dad in top form.

“You have to look at death as part of life,” Buchanan said. “‘If people looked at it that way, they wouldn’t need the limousines, the caskets and the tons of flowers, the embalming and all the other barbarities that go on at a so-called traditional funeral.’ ‘The hoopla is undignified,’ he said. ‘The other indignity is putting so much emphasis on the body, which is not a person.’ Buchanan has not made the trip to his mother’s gravesite in Spokane, Wash., in years, he said. ‘That grave site does not mean anything,’ he said. ‘What does mean something is that the dead still live in our minds,’ he added.”

“The hoopla is undignified” and “…all the other barbarities…” Dad had a way with words.

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I’ll never know whether a big band leader’s outburst in the 40s inspired dad to help save the world. But damn, it was inspiring to hear him tell that story. Actually, there wasn’t a lot about John Buchanan that wasn’t inspiring. Though less active, dad still followed the news during his final years. I wish he had been spared America’s rightward drift during the 90s and new millennium and all the intentional unfairness it has thus far meted out. Mercifully, he wasn’t around to see the bully renaissance in full flower. If he were still alive, news of such bad-guy victories as the passage of voter suppression laws and the Citizens United ruling would have put him in a funk. He would have gotten very quiet…for a while.

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I’m in love with a cantankerous old crone named Ramona Red Wolf. Don’t ask; I’ll explain later.

I ran out to pick up the new novel, Shidoshi: The Four Ways of the Corpse for a couple of reasons. The book is written by an old chum of mine named Gordon Richiusa, whom I know to be a hell of a writer, and the story is about ninjas. Now, I’ve never been very interested in karate, kung fu, boxing or any of the zillions of creative ways man has come up with to smack each other around; martial arts movies either send me into peals of derisive laughter or uncontrollable fits of ennui. For some inexplicable reason, though, I’ve always nursed a curiosity about ninjas. I think the hook was baited by Tiger Tanaka’s ninja academy in “You Only Live Twice,” then gradually set by a number of movies I’ve seen through the years depicting those slithery, black-garbed enigmas. I hoped this book would give me the non-Hollywood skinny on these guys.

Shidoshi not only satisfied my ninja jones, but also turned out to be a good read. One part primer on “ninjutsu”– the history, credo and deadly fighting style of this secretive warrior class — and two parts adventure, Richiusa’s first novel is as informative as it is entertaining.

Set against a 300-Year Plan to unify the internationally fragmented ninja clans, Richiusa contrasts modern day characters, settings and weapons against the methods and mores of old Japan. Essentially, Shidoshi is the story of a showdown between the rightful-though-reluctant heir to the title “Shidoshi,” leader of the unified clans, and those who would do anything to keep him from ascending. Though told with a liberal dose of humor and quirky characters, Shidoshi’s epic scope and unbreakable connection to the past are constant reminders of its gravitas and the high stakes of The Plan. The story is loaded with left turns, as one might expect from a tale that begins in Los Angeles, excurses to Okinawa and winds up on a windswept Hopi reservation in southwest America. Which brings me to Ramona Red Wolf.

A kind of Auntie Mame-meets-Ma Joad wrapped in a snaggle-toothed, octogenarian, Native-American body, Ramona Red Wolf is indicative of Richiusa’s ability to bring eccentricity to credible life. As one of a group of equally interesting and well-drawn mentor ninjas, Red Wolf whips her charges into shape with a mixture of raw humor and perfectionism not seen since Mr. Niagi got the Karate Kid to paint his fence.

Red Wolf’s quirky persona is a good example of what makes this novel unusual and entertaining. Shidoshi is a book of contrasts. It gives us old Japan in a modern wrapping, Asian lore and fighting styles on an American Indian reservation, and a deadly serious and precise battle waged by imperfect, sometimes hilarious, characters. The main characters’ devotion to The Plan is a given; their offhandedness and humor actually serve to heighten the plot’s stakes.

An internationally recognized martial arts instructor and recent inductee into the Martial Arts Hall of Fame, Richiusa brings authority and credibility to Shidoshi. His non-fiction writing on Carlos Castaneda and Native Americans also helps to flesh out lovely Ramona and her milieu. In other words, Richiusa knows his way around a sweat lodge as much as he does a dojo.

I must admit, I approached this book with dread. If 90 minutes of martial arts on screen can make me scream for deliverance, what would 300 pages of karate chops and “bruising on the inside” do to me? Not to mention, it was written by an old friend. What would I tell him if it stunk? Thank heavens, Shidoshi: The Four Ways of the Corpse proved to be a font of ninja info and a well-told story.

Note to publisher: Watch those damned typos and punctuation lapses, guys!