Muscle Shoals Has Got the River

Recently I saw the 2013 documentary, Muscle Shoals.  I consider myself rather knowledgeable when it comes to music.  The music of the 60’s to the 80’s anyway. I was certainly familiar with the music of Lynyrd Skynrd, Aretha Franklin, Traffic, Wilson Pickett, and Jimmy Cliff (to name a few), but I had no idea that they were backed by “The Stampers.”  (Leon Russell named them that when he recorded with them.) The Stampers are a bunch of white rock studio guys from Muscle Shoals, Alabama who played on some of the biggest records of the time.

The movie focused on the story of how the Muscle Shoals sound was born.  And the drama between Rick Hall, the man who put these musicians together, and the band’s subsequent departure to do their own thing.  In between were stories of perseverance, synchronicity, magic.  Along the way were some amazing performances and glowing words from Etta James, Alicia Keys, and Keith Richards, to name a few.

The sound is quite distinct – it’s not the Memphis Sound nor the Blues of New Orleans, not like Chicago or Detroit.  Muscle Shoals is its own soul.  A little more gritty, more sultry maybe. Funky to be sure. It’s a shame that so few people, including the well-read me, know their names: Rick Hall, Barry Beckett, Roger Hawkins, David Hood, and Jimmy Johnson. Lynyrd Skynyrd knew and wrote about them, “Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers; And they’ve been known to pick a song or two. Lord they get me off so much. They pick me up when I’m feeling blue. Now how about you?”  Aretha Franklin found her groove with them.  Percy Sledge had his first hit out of Rick Hall’s studio.

Maybe it was the merging of rock with soul and country, along with the heartbeat of the place, that turned on so many musicians, from so many different places.  It could have been the ear of Rick Hall who brought it all together.  I like the notion that came from the “Singing” River. That is the name the Native Americans gave The Tennessee River which runs by Muscle Shoals.  Local legend tells of a great grandmother who was taken away from the river and was surprised that no other river sings. Perhaps it was the water that made the magic. You can’t deny its power.

Listen to any number of great records and you will find it.

Check out this extensive list of the songs and artists The Stampers  worked with.   Staggering!


Fanning the Flames of Fiction

I’ve been hearing lots of people talk glowingly about fiction lately.  Maybe it’s the warm weather and rebirth of summer that’s turned so many to the delights of story.  It could be the ease of e-books, too. Though one such Commentor was coming out of the library with a solid book in his hands.

Not so surprising as fiction is fun. And it comes in such a dazzling array of choices!  Fiction brings us drama and surprise, tears and laughter. The shrieks of horror, the challenge of a twisting mystery, the heartbreak of ill-fated lovers. The amazing places you may never be able to visit. All in 500 pages give or take, without leaving your sofa.

Step inside the nearly virtual experience fiction can provide as it transports us to another place and time.  All rules are gone. There are no limits to where you can go.  Fiction takes you places Non- dare not.

The reach of fiction cannot be denied.  Story is so basic to who we are, everyone can relate to a good one. Fiction can hand us universal concepts, illustrated so enjoyably, it’s like poetry.  Fiction has a way of illuminating, shining a light on every day truths, right in front of our mind’s eye,. Where Quantum Physics may be beyond our comprehension, a story, like The Alchemist, is easy to absorb.  How many people have read Harry Potter?

As a, largely, non-fiction writer, I love my time with fiction.  It allows a release from my more restrained prose.  For me, non-fiction either communicates or it doesn’t.  Fiction is not so easy to pin down.  Sometimes you want to obscure, even a little bit.  Fiction requires a different frame of mind. There is nothing in the world like seeing an entire story take place in your head, guiding it, fueling it, following it.  Wow!

Fiction rocks!


You know what gets me angry?  Telemarketers. People or machines that like to call me to offer their wares in the middle of dinner, when I’m watching a movie, trying to focus or just want to be with my family.  We all know the feeling of a cold call.

What they are telling me is that I don’t know what I need or where to get it. (For that matter, what I care about and how I wish to support it.) But it occurs to me that in this day and age, if I have even the slightest whim to purchase, I have a dazzling array of  places I can go to research and to put down my money.  I don’t need to be told.

“Did you know, Ma’am, that this new dishwasher can save you 10 hours a day in washing dishes by hand?”  Reminds me of the film Tin Men about selling aluminum siding in the early 60’s.  This seems like a way of selling that is falling by the wayside. The idea today has to be: Why should I buy from you when I have zillions of other options?

Not, do I need what you’re offering?  For if I did, I would know that without anyone telling me.  I am aware of most new breakthrough products.  If not, I can watch multiple shopping channels to be shown them. In a trice I could look on the Internet and find all I need to know about any new directions.  With a few clicks I can find out where to purchase and how to get there.  As long as I have the readies (in some cases I don’t even need that) I can purchase on the spot! The question has to be: Why should I buy from you instead of the next in the search?

Or the guy down the street? Hand-in-hand with the Internet spreading its wares in front of us, we have the proliferation of shopping malls and mega stores. Let’s not forget that hardy bunch of local small businesses.  Why then, would I need anyone calling me cold?

Some would say, if it wasn’t working, they wouldn’t do it.  But I don’t think that’s true anymore.  Most of the calls I get are robo calls with predictive dialing.  It’s probably cheap to do. Even if you only get one sucker.

We get a call regularly, sometimes twice a day, that informs us this is our  “…second and final call to lower your interest rate.”  I have, on occasion, waited around to press 1 to lower my rate and asked them not to call me anymore.  Usually that is followed by a hang up and no fewer calls.  Over the last week, though, they’ve come up on the caller ID as “Marketing Fraud.”

How can these continue to exist?  What has happened to the Do Not Call List? I’ve been told it wasn’t enforceable.  These clever Scammers must just change places and keep on.  Why can’t they get the message?

They are much like Spammers on the Internet – the dark side of Internet Marketing.  Perhaps this is what those bothersome calls are morphing into. The only thing Spammers hold over the Scammers is at least they do not shout at me through the voice mail.

Junk mail doesn’t bother me as much.  At least that is the written word. You can quickly choose to fold it up and put it in recycling.  Like the Spammers, it is less intrusive. And you can choose when and where you are ready to absorb it.

I suppose there will always be cold calling in some fashion – on the phone, in print or in the Internet – but maybe we can find a way to extinct the oldest dinosaur and stay off my phone!

2 Rescue Movies

The Monuments Men (2014)

This is an important WWII story about a bunch of men who knew more about art than war, being tasked with hunting for art treasures behind enemy lines. They were to rescue whatever they could from the Germans who were hoarding and in some cases destroying these works of art.

Featuring an amazing cast including, George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, and Bob Balaban.  With a cast like that, it can’t help but be entertaining.

My problem with it was that the story, it seemed, was just too big.  Even for that cast.  The enormity of it just didn’t come through the screen for me.

Still, it is a fascinating story of bravery and dedication to a cause that needs to be told.

Escape from Tomorrow (2013)

A most unusual film.  It is about a very surreal family vacation at Epcot Center.  It was filmed at the park, in black and white. Doing it this way helped the ambiance of the darkness going on in this most happy and cheerful place. It is stated, up front, that neither Disney, nor Siemens (who held a smaller role), had anything to do with the film.  What they had to do to get this made  could be another movie.  Much like Bowfinger, where they filmed Kit Ramsey, the actor, without him knowing it.

The story is rather difficult to follow.  It’s kind of an apocalyptic, Big Brother tale. (Disney does keep very tight surveillance on their parks.)  Maybe the story line threads through the dad, as he chases after two adorable young French girls.  They lead him to bizarre situations. The places he found himself in were at times humorous, others sci-fi goofy, or downright gruesome.  Could it be, especially so, in the contrast of black and white?  It seemed to be for me. The blood looked almost more ominous in black.  This is not kid fare.

The next morning it seemed to grow on me. Seeing the extras can shed  light on the hazier points. I’m still not sure exactly what it was about, but now I think it had something to do with imagination.  It was certainly imagination that brought Mickey Mouse to Walt Disney in that dark garage.  In this film, nightmares of youth, mixed with the ego, drive, and knowing-too-much paranoid imaginings of adulthood, drive the theme.

As the Disney song states, “When you wish upon a star, makes no difference who you are. Anything your heart desires will come to you.”  Though the road to get there can be pretty scary, maybe Escape from Tomorrow is about being granted a new tomorrow.  It’s worth a watch.

America, How I Love Thee!

My father was on a Naval Ship in World War II.  He was a Communications Officer.  If he came across horrors during his time in the war, he did not share them with me.  I do know, in his later years, when I knew him best, he was a peace-loving man, always.  I could see in his eyes the affinity he felt as he watched the rebelling youth of the 60’s.In his younger days, as a radio broadcaster, he often spoke up for what he believed -even if it wasn’t a popular viewpoint.  He rejoiced that neither of his sons had to fight in the Vietnam war.

Like him, I dream of a world where people do not have to take up arms and aim at another human being over principles like freedom and democracy or the right to the basic necessities of life. As out of place as Delaware fighting Pennsylvania for more land for Delewarians. As unthinkable as shooting your own family. A world where we won’t have to pay the price of lost lives for concepts that should readily be ours  When we understand we are all in this together, I believe, we will have no more need to shoot and kill to get what we want and need.

I wish there was no Memorial Day, as there would be no one who had died fighting for ideals.  But until that day, I am astounded at the bravery of men and women, throughout our history on this planet, who have stood up and been willing to die for something they believe in.  From  military service to rebels to activists.  I wish we could honor them more than one day.

Today and every day, I celebrate America through my favorite band from the 70’s.  The three founding members were, in fact, the Americans at an army base in England where their fathers were stationed.

Ask most people if they know A Horse With No Name, Ventura Highway, Tin Man, Sister Golden Hair, or You Can Do Magic, and they’ll say, “Yeah, sure, America.  I like them.”  Though there are many fans who still come out to the shows, there are few as dedicated as I am.

My history with America is long.  It began with their first album, sometimes called America.  (The one with the Native Americans behind them.)  My teenage friend and I played it while we puzzled over the Ouija Board. They took on a mystical quality from the start.  In those days, I’d light a candle, put on America and meditate.  Keeping my thoughts on America was easy and turned out to be good meditation practice.

I listened to their records over and over and over and over again (and still do!)  Their 3rd album, Hat Trick was on the record player every morning as I woke. I dropped the needle on the record to accompany my preparations to go to school. Music was a huge part of my life back then and America was at the heart of it. They might have had something to do with my aspirations to be in the music business.

As I continued to follow them and get all their records, go to shows every year, my affinity for them grew. America came to be My Band. Later on, when I found my calling as a writer, America was what I played as I worked on my novel.  (With Dan Fogelberg in there, too.)  America music was present at many important moments in my life.  And I hold cherished memories of the shows I’ve attended and the visits I’ve had with them.

After so many concerts, the boys began to notice me.  Several times I would find myself in the right place to be able to talk to them. They were always respectful and generous with their time. Through these visits I was able to get a glimpse into the people behind the music I loved so much.

What strikes me most about them is that they are always gracious. They were very young when A Horse With No Name hit the charts.  But they seem to have grown up well. They’ve come through it all, it would appear, with a sense of gratitude for their lives.  I think part of that may be because they’ve done it, largely, the way they wanted.  Maybe not achieving the status of success they might have if they’d made more compromises.  As far as I know they both have families, passions and a life outside of this rock star thing

I believe (and other wise souls in my life have agreed) that America was a good, healthy outlet for me as a teenager.  Their simple lyrics based on love and nature, were soothing to the reckless spirit in me.  In many ways they kept me on the straight and narrow. America was a safe harbor for me.

It seems that America is also associated with me.  Most everyone I’ve known for even a little while, know of my love for the band.  Some have told me that whenever they hear America, they think of me.  That’s pretty cool!

Maybe I have this thing for them because of my familiarity with the music.  I have listened to the records over and over so many times, perhaps it’s become in tune to my heart beat. Though I like to think the synchronization happened long before I heard their music. All I know is that the music calms me.  Even today, after thousands of listens, Hat Trick still sounds fresh and wonderful to me.  Whenever I’m scared, or a long way from home, facing something – like a dentist’s drill even – I run to America.  I can rest there, on their layers of guitars, soothed by their harmonic voices.  Good memories and warm feelings well up in me.  They’ve been the soundtrack of my life.

So I stand up this Memorial Day and salute all heros who have died for a cause.  But my hand comes back on my heart to pray that someday we will know only peace.  Where we can all just hang out, listen to America and chill.

In-Step Brothers and Maron is Back!

In-Step Brothers

What do you expect from a Judd Apatow film?  Light and fun.  Usually some romance and maybe some redemption.

Step Brothers (2008) did not disappoint. Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly who play the step brothers are very much in step.  The play off each other so well, it’s hard not to think that they aren’t blood brothers.  Will and John share a similar feel for comedy and their styles mesh well.  The step brothers were an easy match and they were entertaining in and of themselves. This pairing makes the movie well worth the time. And if you haven’t had enough, there’s a lot more gags on the DVD extras.

My problem with it was a matter of belief.  The premise is this: Two men, 39 and 40, still live at home with their single parents.  Until the parents meet and fall in love, get married and blend the families. Some of what brought them together was the full grown men they both had at home.  A dysfunctional family of course, like The Osbournes meet the Brady Bunch.  Though I enjoyed the child-like antics of the two “boys”, I couldn’t get past the fact that they are both men. Seems to me they might be bitter, maybe a little resigned, even have difficulty doing some things, but not act like they’re 7 years old.  The humor from all that, at times, and to be expected, felt a bit over the top, to me.

Overall, a fun move, if not simple and predictable at times. It could’ve been better, I think. The Step Brothers are in step, with a few missteps here and there.

Maron is Back!

Marc Maron is a funny guy who does a podcast.  Quite an interesting podcast, too.  We’ve known of him for a long time – back when he was a long-haired stand up on the original Comedy Channel.

These days he does a show about a guy who does a podcast. True enough, some of the stories surround his life as a comedian with a podcast. But it is unlikely all the scenarios are a direct reflection of his life.  However, the ring of truth always makes for more enjoyable comedy. The original Dick Van Dyke Show did that so well. The writers even admitted they stole story ideas from real life.  Real Life +  Fictional Details makes for rich stories.

Marc, in the show, is surrounded by quirky family and friends. Much like the beloved Dr. Katz (on which Marc appeared at time a two), comedians stop by regularly to keep the laughter flowing.  Anyone who can keep me laughing the better part of a 20 minute or so show, is doing something right.

The second season of Maron makes for a genuinely funny and entertaining half hour on IFC Thursdays at 10:00 (for the time being and no doubt repeated at other times).

Darrin Stephens – Stealer of Power

You know who pisses me off?  Darrin Stephens.  The fictional husband of Samantha Stephens in the 60’s television series Bewitched.

Darrin constantly tried to take her power. And gave her no respect in return. Even when she was trying to comfort him, he was accusing her of something.

In the first season, most of the episodes were about something going wrong at the advertising agency where Darrin worked.  Whether it was or not, he always blamed Samantha or her family.  In the later seasons it often was, but not necessarily.  His first thought was always to blame Sam.  If she said she had nothing to do with the problem, he still didn’t believe her. More so in the first season, but when he was stuck in his work because of whatever had happened, it was Sam who came up with just the right slogan. Turns out she was a better ad man than he was.

I used to think Endora, Samantha’s mother, was horribly cruel to Darrin.  But I think she saw what he was trying to do to her daughter.  Everything was “no witchcraft.”  Sam was not allowed to do the household chores using her power.  It always had to be “normal.”  He would reluctantly give in, however, if it was to get him out a jam.  Even if Sam and her family had nothing to do with it.  It was all about taking away her power.

There was talk that Jeannie from I Dream of Jeannie was treated in a similar kind of chauvinistic way.  I disagree.  Jeannie was allowed to use her power and though she might occasionally be mistakenly blamed, Tony would apologize.  He never tried to get her to stop what she did best, just tone it down in some circumstances.  Tony didn’t deny who or what she was.  She served him in many ways, but that’s what a genie is supposed to do.  Jeannie got a lot more out of the relationship than Samantha did.

Okay, so maybe Darrin was intimated by her power.  It’s possible he was a little afraid of her family and what they could do that he couldn’t.  It might have even emasculated him.  But didn’t he think he might be getting into trouble marrying a witch?  (For a witch with strength, try 1942’s I Married a Witch with Veronica Lake.)  I don’t know.  Are all witch families that colorful?


I am a big fan of Lovejoy, a British series, often called The Lovejoy Mysteries. From 1985 to 1994 Ian McShane portrayed Lovejoy in the series. It was a regal performance of a truly delightful character. I like to think this character was close to who Ian is. He played it as such.

Lovejoy, just Lovejoy, no mister, is an antiques dealer in a small English village outside London. He’s been wielding his trade for a long time and knows his stuff.

He has a special affinity and passion for antiques. Money is not nearly as important to him.  Lovejoy is  what is referred to as a “Divvy.” This means he has the almost magical power to divine a true antique. He will have physical reactions such as sweaty palms when in the presence of something real.

The character was taken from a series of books by Jonathan Gash. The Lovejoy in the books was a bit more of a rogue, but even in the television version he is still a bounder. Not above entering into deals that others might consider a little “dodgy.” And he is quite a lady’s man.

Lovejoy’s best friend is Lady Jane Felsham, who is married to a wealthy businessman, traveling more than he’s home. So Jane has time and money to give Lovejoy, often bailing him out of one scrape or another with cash on the line or her Range Rover. Jane knows antiques well, having purchased many, and enjoys Lovejoy’s adventures. As she said in the beginning, you were more likely to see her in “wellies” than dressed up for a formal occasion. There is a strong sexual tension between the two of them which never really quite materializes. But there is a deep love and affection between them. Lady Jane is always there for Lovejoy whenever he needs her and Lovejoy, well, if the chips are down, Lovejoy would do anything for her.

Of course, Lovejoy has more than just Lady Jane on his crew. Tinker Dill is his “barker.” I believe they are defined as a broken-down alcoholic who knows a lot about antiques and, perhaps due to the time he spends in pubs, knows what’s on the street. Tinker is a sweet faced man who is fiercely loyal to Lovejoy, knows almost as much as Lovejoy does, and just favors a drink whenever he can.

Over the course of the series Lovejoy had two assistants. Eric Catchpole was the first. A young man whose butcher father offered Lovejoy cuts of meat in exchange for teaching Eric a thing or two. Eric is not the best student, with more of an aptitude for music than antiques. Of course, Eric gets to do all the fetching and dirty work. His motorcycle with a side car often comes in handy when Lovejoy’s car is inevitably in the shop, and Lovejoy’s a little short for the garage bill.

Later in the series, Lovejoy got Beth. A small but strong Jamaican girl who had a far superior eye for antiques than ever Eric did.

Charlie Gimbert was Lovejoy’s foil. He is often Lovejoy’s landlord, forcing Lovejoy to do dastardly things for him in exchange for rent. Gimbert has far less of a feel for antiques than Lovejoy and he knows it. Charlie, perhaps even more devious than Lovejoy, has money and likes to hold it over him.

Though most of the stories are set in East Anglia where all the characters live, each year they would do a two part episodes in different locations. One time was a Jonathan Gash story called “Death and Venice,” filmed in Venice. Lovejoy gets embroiled in not just any art heist, but THE art heist. One year Lovejoy was in Prague on a treasure hunt for diamonds and a woman. Another time he visited Sheridan County, North Carolina to search for the Lost colony. There the powerful Lovejoy clan was up to no good. The gang had to come all the way to the states to rescue him that time!

One of the things I really like about this show are the well-written stories. There was a small team of writers who wrote for the series over its six seasons. Some of the episodes were more thoughtful, while others saw Lovejoy going here and doing that. Many of the stories wound up back where they started, giving a real sense of satisfaction. While they are called “mysteries” there is a lot of humor and romance. Lovejoy does enjoy a pretty ankle and is often led astray by the women in and out of his life. The characters are all quite lovable. And Lovejoy often turns and addresses the camera.

Clearly, I would be remiss to forget Charlotte Cavendish. The daughter of a connection of Lovejoy’s, Charlotte had been educated in the best schools and worked in New York City before returning home to take over her aging father’s auction house. A strong woman who knew almost as much about antiques as Lovejoy. Charlotte was a good love interest for Lovejoy, being unattached.

Overall, a most delightful series, with good, crisp writing, and well developed and interesting characters, along with a variety of engaging stories. And you learn a few things about antiques in the process.

One Tree

I believe in trees. I get very upset with people who want to take trees down because they are inconvenient.

This past winter was tough where we live. We had an ice storm that broke in half dozens of trees. And I have felt the sting for each and every one that is no more. Except for those moments when the trees were snapping in half like gun shots and I didn’t know if they were going to hit the house or not, I am not afraid of trees. I respect them and look on them as a Brother. (Listen to The Rascal’s Brother Tree.) They raise their arms to God, protecting us as they do.

Many years ago I did some writing for a man, I liked to call The Zealot. He’s a Tree Biologist and knows just about everything there is to know about trees. The Zealot has very definite ideas about what is treating trees and the environment “well” and what is clearly not.

He fights hard, every day, to convince people of what he sees. Back then I wondered if those who resist his protestations only see one tree. From that perspective, maybe the Zealot seems crazy. If all you care about is that one tree that is blocking your view or dislike the droppings on your clean lawn from another, than what he’s trying to teach means nothing to you.

Would those people object to his caring for the trees as much if they could see them the way he does? In the context of the “Earth’s Forest”? Maybe then they could better grasp his concerns. Whether that would convince them to change, I don’t know.

We might all try to see it as One Tree, with an interconnected root system. We are all, in essence, One Tree. Perhaps there are ways to explain to them about this amazing network we share, all made of the same stuff. Human beings and trees, together on this planet.

You might need to convert in layers. Teach one group of people, as far as you can. And then, learning something from that, try to reach another. Just keep keeping on. The Zealot will. And maybe someday everyone will wake up and see we are all in this together. That we can stand up for the One Tree that is us.

Review: 2 Days in the Valley

A wonderful romp from 1996. I admit, it was a bit violent at times and perhaps a little too much gratuitous flesh for my taste, but otherwise, a really fun movie. Written and directed by John Herzfeld. I have a notion it contributes to a good movie when the writer is there on set moving everyone around.

It featured a bunch of offbeat characters, played well by such notable actors as Danny Aiello, Teri Hatcher, Jeff Daniels, James Spader, Marsha Mason, Eric Stoltz and Paul Mazursky

Of course, if I’ve liked it, the writing must have been tight and natural. A good story always sells me, too. This movie delivers on both counts.

I watch a LOT of movies. And more often than not, I know, (or have a sense about) what’s going to happen next. In this one, at every twist and turn, I said, “I didn’t see that coming!” That’s the mark of a good movie in my book. It certainly adds to my enjoyment.

The “Valley” is part of Los Angeles and the “2 Days” refers to 48 hours that doesn’t stop. It begins by telling several stories of people who don’t seem connected at all. When they come together . . .  that can produce something exciting. This one pays off well as a dark comedy of murder and mayhem, romance and redemption.

This sleeper garnered little attention in 1996 and not much since, but I would call it a must see.

IMDB reference: 2 Days in the Valley