Everyone loves the drums. We love them in marching bands, we love them in the 1812 Overture, we love them in our language. We talk of beating the drums and drumming up business. We admire anything that’s tight as a drum. When we’re at the top of our game, we never miss a beat.

Other instruments have evolved from the drums: the xylophone, the harpsichord, the piano. Other art forms, too: tap dancing. My bets on the first technologies humans invented are: fire, singing, painting, how to julienne a mastodon, and drumming.

Drumming – good or bad – is hard work. What if you tried to drum and sing? Picture yourself behind your Ludwig Black Oyster Pearl drum kit. You and the band are playing “Louie, Louie.” You’re moving your left hand. You’re moving your right hand. You’re moving your left foot. You’re moving your right foot.

Algernon the junior scientist reporting on his procedure as he tries to electrocute Ringo in Help: I’m moving my left leg…I’m moving my right leg…

Can you imagine singing “Me gotta go now” while you simultaneously move your other body parts? As Ringo once sang while doing exactly that, “You know it don’t come easy.”

Which brings us to my list and the #1 drummer on it:

1. Ringo Starr
Not the greatest drummer or the greatest singer, but he doesn’t have to be. Ringo created the template for the modern singing drummer: A little of-kilter, a little bit of a loner, witty in an understated way. He also has the best nickname.

Ringo was such a force of nature that A Hard Day’s Night and Help were both about him. Ringo is the only singing drummer who is happy to spend the day with somebody else’s grandfather, who is too nice to betray a rich American widow or embarrass a sheila with his cool appraising stare, and who is always ready to sacrifice himself to save England from a racist-stereotype cult. Only Ringo could become a grandfather and a great-grandfather while still playing the drums, and only Ringo could create a band to give underemployed rock gods a paycheck, a band that’s so insanely popular, it’s been touring for 29 years.

He’s the best.

2. Karen Carpenter
Not the greatest drummer, but what a voice. She was Annie Lennox without the sex. If only I liked her music. Ten minutes of The Carpenters’ ultra-smooth, impenetrable sweetness makes me want to unplug my internal organs. If I go to a yard sale this summer and they try to give me We Only Just Began: The Complete Works of Karen and Richard Carpenter plus a corgi puppy, I will say no.

[Editor’s note: My wife just informed me that if I go to a yard sale this summer and they try to give me We Only Just Began plus a corgi puppy, I will say yes.]

In her short career, Karen Carpenter faced two challenges that most of the drummers on this list did not: the music industry’s hatred of women and the eating disorder that killed her. She was a pioneer and a role model. Easy pick for #2.

3. Maurice White
Maurice White seemed destined for a career as a solid jazz studio musician and a sought-after sideman. Most of us in the creative arts line would be happy with a description like that. But White had a vision, and that vision was not to see his name buried in the liner notes of other people’s records. He wanted to rule the world – the world of pop.

It took a few years, but his band, Earth, Wind & Fire, became one of the dominant bands of the 1970s. No other jazz musician has ever crossed over to pop and scored such a success. (I’m not counting jazz-fusion hybrids or novelty jazz hits such as Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” or Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate Upon the Winds.”)

Several people, including his guitarist and at least one of his co-writers, have claimed that White told them “Don’t let the lyrics get in the way of the groove.” The quote’s source might be a mystery, but not its truth. Just listen to Earth, Wind & Fire’s lyrics. They are not in the way of anything.

4. Roger Taylor
Roger Taylor of Queen could sing a falsetto that made The Four Seasons sound like obstructive lymphoid tissue. He made The Beach Boys and Jan & Dean sound like Darth Vader with a mouthful of socks. That’s his suborbital vocal on “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Only Jimmy Somerville (Bronksi Beat, The Communards) could puncture the same octaves. (Donna Summer and Minnie Riperton could do this in their sleep.) Taylor is a Hall of Fame hard-rock drummer as well as a prolific composer. He should probably lead this list, but, except for a couple of cuts from the Flash Gordon soundtrack, I dislike Queen.

5. Phil Collins
I dislike Queen but I hate Phil Collins. Su-su-sudio! For several years you couldn’t avoid him. He was bearable when he was playing the drums in Genesis behind Peter Gabriel. But then Gabriel left and Collins took over. He’s an excellent drummer and singer, but wow, I hate him.

When you have a population of just 14 singing drummers, you have to expect that some of them will bear an unfair weight of disapproval.

6. Buddy Miles
A good drummer and a sweet soul singer whose legend is forever entangled with Jimi Hendrix and the California Raisins. His bands: Electric Flag, The Buddy Miles Express, Band of Gypsys, and on and on. His nickname: Buddy, for Buddy Rich. His signature tunes: “Them Changes” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” His signature contribution: Injecting funk into the heart of rock. His Afro in 1970: Like a Russian ushanka on the head of Dr. Zhivago.

7. Sheila E.
Sheila Escovedo was Prince’s most talented apprentice. Her drumbeats are all over Sign ‘O’ the Times. She was a drummer from an early age as all of these folks were. When she grew up, she drummed while wearing high heels as none of these folks did. (That we know of.)

Her solo career is disappointing, though I like tracks from The Glamorous Life and (how can you not swoon over this) Sex Cymbal. The music on Sex Cymbal is not exactly immortal, but if Sheila E. and her band performed this set at your New Year’s Eve dinner and dance, you’d be ecstatic even if you weren’t taking Ecstasy. And guess who gave her a job when she needed one? Ringo Starr!

8. Levon Helm
He sang “The Weight” on The Band’s first album, Music From Big Pink, and for me that’s enough to land him on this list without considering the next 10 Band albums or all of his folk recordings that I’ll probably never listen to. If Helm had not been a musician, he would’ve recorded William Faulkner audio books. Another Ringo Starr employee.

9. Grant Hart
Hüsker Dü is one of my favorite punk bands. I don’t look to punk for technical excellence in drumming. But Hart’s ability to play at punk speeds and sing well with the speakers set to punk volumes was worth an invitation to join the X-Men.

10. Pete Rivera
The Rare Earth drummer and vocalist is the tallest drummer here at 8 feet even, a foot taller than Don Henley and 4 feet taller than Sheila E., Levon Helm, Ringo and myself. Similar to Buddy Miles, in that he was a good drummer and a soul shouter. He even has his own signature songs: “Get Ready” and “(I Know I’m) Losing You.”

11. Don Henley
A passable player. I wouldn’t hire him to play my birthday if I could get Sheila E., Roger Taylor, or, if everyone else canceled, Phil Collins. Henley played drums and sang with The Eagles, then played guitar and sang in his solo career. I prefer his solo music (“All She Wants to Do Is Dance” narrowly defeats “Hotel California”), which is why he’s ranked way down here.

12. Jimmy Marinos
Jimmy Marinos of The Romantics put muscle into his drumming. He did the same with his singing, which was a step short of shouting. Marinos is a sentimental pick, as we’ve danced to “What I Like About You” about a billion times.

The Romantics had fabulous hair.

13. Mickey Dolenz
Mickey Dolenz was an enthusiastic if unskillful drummer with a solid, likeable voice. He knew how to sell this stuff. I don’t think it’s an accident that almost all of the songs by The Monkees that are any good were sung by Dolenz:

“The Girl I Knew Somewhere”
“Goin’ Down”
“(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone”
“Last Train to Clarkesville”
“Pleasant Valley Sunday”
“Porpoise Song” (the theme from Head)

Davey Jones sang “A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You.” The rest of their catalog is car seat stuffing.

My wife has fond memories of the young Mickey Dolenz in the title role of Circus Boy, where every week he saved the circus with the assistance of his avenging pet elephant, Bimbo.

14. Peter Criss
It’s a sad day when I am forced to write about Kiss, but I knew this job was dangerous when I took it.

If you didn’t love Kiss when you were a teenager, and I didn’t, you sure as hell are not going to love them as an adult, and I don’t. Gene Simmons, Ace Frehley, Paul Stanley, and Peter Criss were four of the biggest sexist pricks in rock, and that is a very high bar to clear. The critic Mike McGuirk put this better than I can: “You know damn well that if they didn’t have both eyes on maximum commerciality they’d call themselves Blow Job.”

Compared to Kiss, AC/DC is leading the #MeToo movement.

I’m not sure how good Criss is as a drummer, because he often plays the same thing and sometimes his drums are mixed way behind the rest of the music. A producer can do a lot to inflate or deflate a drummer’s reputation. But Criss has a booming rock voice, he anchored a super successful band of his fellow pricks, and he wrote a lot (including that horrible ballad/dues song “Beth,” which was at least a break from the full-on misogyny of Destroyer). I can’t ignore him, but I can stick him and his Love Gun behind The Monkees.

Thus ends my list, not with a bang but with the cymbals falling over. Alert readers will notice that everyone here is either a) old, or b) dead. Are there singing drummers in their 20s and 30s? Please send me a mix tape and an autographed cowbell.

 

After my last post, I wanted to tell you that my Dad is back in his house and, thanks to my sister, he has a new housemate: a 6-month-old kitten. He’s named her Susie but he calls her Elliot. Whatever works. They fell in love on the first day.

Dad is happy to be sleeping in his own bed under his own roof, even though he knows his stay is temporary. You could say that about all of us. After six weeks of rehab in a nursing home where quiet never reigns, Dad is thrilled to be sitting again at his kitchen table, drinking Lipton tea, eating Oreos, and thinking again, as he has for 40 years, that he doesn’t like the wallpaper. Soon it’ll be time to watch another rerun of Gunsmoke.

When I have a photo of Dad and Susie, or Dad and Neo Elliot, I’ll post it.

In the next few posts we’ll look at some much lighter subjects, such as singing drummers, Las Vegas-style versions of rock songs, why Herbie Hancock is a musical minefield, and marriage. Until then, go in the kitchen right now and make yourself a nosh. You deserve it.

 

My Dad brought home his first pet when he was 85. His family had collies when he was growing up, but when Dad married Mom and they moved to the country, they had human creatures, not creature creatures. The reason for this is unknown, though for years Mom could unintentionally start an argument by wondering, “Why didn’t we have a dog when the children were small?”

When Dad was 85 and Mom was 82, my sister and her daughter, who were visiting, spotted an ad in the Sunday paper for a kitten who needed a family. They urged my father to go look at that cat first thing Monday morning. “This house is dead,” Gayle told him. “You need some life here.”

Elliot was the sole survivor of a litter left behind by a feral cat. Dad, who often said, “I never thought I could love a cat,” loved Elliot beyond all measure. Adopting Elliot was one of Gayle’s best ideas and one of the best things Dad ever did, because as my mother slipped into dementia and eventually into a nursing home, Elliot took her place.

Elliot gave Dad a reason to get up in the morning. Elliot created movement in the house. Elliot spoke Yiddish with Dad. Elliot was always waiting when Dad came home. In his excitement at seeing Dad, he’d stand on a table by the back door we always used and claw at the metal venetian blinds over the back door window. Dad eventually sliced the blinds until he had cut an Elliot-sized gap.

Recently, when Dad had a fall in the kitchen, Elliot stood guard beside him until the ambulance came.

My father will be 91 in May. He’s currently sharing a room in the nursing home with my mother. We’re hoping he’ll get strong enough in physical therapy to go back to his house.

I went to visit last week. I stayed in the house. The first night, Elliot hid. The second night, a few minutes after I turned out the light and rolled onto my side, there was a thump beside me and then paws started punching my back, trying to mold me into a more Dad-like lump. Then he rucked up the blanket, because that wasn’t right, either. Then he curled into a ball and began to purr like he was motoring across Lake Michigan.

(I’m allergic to cats, but I have a new combination of meds. Dad had been worried about Elliot being alone. Elliot is an indoor cat who lives a quiet life. I did my best to keep the little man company.)

This went on for three nights. Around 4 a.m. each morning, Elliot put on his miniature hard hat and reported to various work stations around the house, banging on objects, racing from Point A to Point B, and fighting a war inside a paper bag.

On the last full day of my visit, my parents’ caregiver, Melissa – another hero in my parents’ story – brought Elliot to the nursing home. Dad, who is in a wheelchair, held and kissed Elliot. Mom, who is on a walker and who was never a fan of cats, was happy for Dad, I think. Elliot, like all cats, was unimpressed.

Melissa was about to put Elliot back in his carrier when he went limp. She screamed. She put Elliot on the floor and ran for a nurse, as you can’t leave Mom alone and we were about to drive to an emergency vet down the road. There I was, holding the cat on the floor while it convulsed, shouting his name, with my father three feet away. I knew Elliot was dead. Melissa returned and we ran for the car. She drove. I held Elliot. I had never held Elliot until this moment. He was silky. I used to make fun of his excess weight, but now he felt tiny.

The vet couldn’t revive him.

Elliot, the one factor in my Dad’s situation that we all thought was a constant, the cat who would surely outlive a 90-year-old man, was a couple of weeks short of his sixth birthday.

One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do was face my father on our return. He was waiting at the nursing home, in his wheelchair, by the back door we always used.

It’s difficult to know how Dad is feeling. How can we understand the emotions of people this age? I doubt that anyone reading this blog has 90 years of ups and downs trailing behind them, with all the emotions that follow along. Sometimes Dad is teary. Sometimes he reminisces. Mostly he’s calm. Once he said, “Now I really am alone.”

“I’ll miss him,” Mom said, and then asked if Elliot was a cat or a dog.

You could say, if you’re a Christian, that God has a plan for everything. Was it a plan to give my father a heart attack? Einstein said that God doesn’t play dice with the universe. Then how do you explain Donald Trump? Depeche Mode said that God has a sick sense of humor. I’m tending toward Depeche Mode.

But in fairness to that bumbler, God, at least Dad was able to say goodbye, even if he didn’t know it at the moment. What if I had come home that night to a dead cat in the kitchen? How would I explain that?

Why am I telling you this?

I’ve been writing this blog since 2010. In 2011, I asked you for money. I am asking you again. I want you to make a donation in memory of Elliot Bieler to the Town of Swansea Animal Shelter, 68 Stevens Rd., Swansea, MA 02777, swanseashelter@yahoo.com. These are the people who saved the abandoned kitten who saved my father.

Thank you. If you have a pet, please give it one of those treats you hold for special occasions. With Elliot, it was herring.

 

 

I’m applying for a job in Trump’s cabinet. Why not, at this point I have as good a chance as anybody. I could hang in there for 10 days, do something I won’t admit with a porn star named after the weather, and play chess with the Russians (they’ll collude to let me win). I guarantee you that no one in that confederacy of dunces knows anything about ’80s music, except for Rick Perry, who still dances in his underwear to “Wake Me Up (Before You Go Go).”

Yes, I’m leaving soon for a trip to D.C., and then I fly to Massachusetts and Antique Parent Land, where all the women are strong, the men are good-looking, and the children are middle-aged. I won’t be back for a while. But before I go, I have to settle something, and that something is the challenge I threw down in my last, very exciting post about spare change. Somebody won. Bigly.

I have a friend who goes by the handle Accused of Lurking. He’s also a superhero who fights disorganized crime as Khaki Man. Accused of Lurking is one of the scariest people I know. He’s so organized that the Library of Congress, knowing they need help, keeps him on a retainer. (When Lurk was 12, they paid for his retainer.) If you give him something, he will not only save it, he’ll cross-index it. Accused of Lurking is the only person I know with the stamina to interview 15 contractors and input their data in a color-coded spreadsheet before he decides who is going to paint his fucking house.

Facts stick to Lurk and never fly away. He could break Jeopardy. Things stick to him, too. Rosebud! He lives with every computer he’s ever owned, including the Apple I he bought out of Steve Jobs’ garage in Los Altos in 1976. (He also lives with a woman who, on the occasion of their marriage and through total force of will, compacted her name from 20 letters to seven. She’s scary, too.)

Thus you won’t be surprised (but you will be frightened) to learn that Accused of Lurking has almost exactly guessed how much money my jar holds when it’s full.

Drum-machine drum roll, please.

The amount in the jar varies based on my impatience to go spend the cash already and how many quarters I steal from myself while the coins are building up. But the range never varies: $65 to $68. I write the dates and the amounts on the inside of the lid.

$65.85 on January 22, 2018
$65.35 on September 23, 2016
$68.98 on June 9, 2014

Accused of Lurking’s winning entry: “My mayo jar guess is $65.”

Second place goes to my friend mikenr with $51.43. “Given the parameters of your story,” mikenr writes, “your mayo jar should hold $51.43. But my official guess will be – one cent (virtually, no, literally, guaranteeing me an interview-free interview, merciless or otherwise, which is a ‘prize’ I do not care to win. But it’s the journey that counts, right?).”

In third place we have my friend Mr. Seaside, who sent this story:

Looks like $21.73 (though this estimate may be as much as $3.47 too high). Gallon glass jars are the way to go in coin accumulating. I had a friend who picked up all of the coinage he found on his daily walks. After decades of doing so he had 5 or 6 large jars of cash with coins dating back as far as the 1920s. Then he ‘cashed in’ before he was able to cash in the coins. Just a small part of his legacy.

Nice try, boys, but you will never be as scary as Accused of Lurking. As Count Floyd used to say, about something that wasn’t scary at all, “Vazn’t that scary, kids?” before pretending he was being filmed in 3D by repeatedly lunging at the camera. To commemorate Lurk’s triumph, he will receive a lifetime supply of Rice-a-Roni, the San Francisco treat, and a lousy copy of our home game. No, he will be mercilessly interviewed. No, I think I’ve done enough of that already. He’ll receive something, because he deserves it. Perhaps an ash tray from my first cabinet meeting, but not the contents of my jar the next time I empty it.

When I get back, we’ll explore the House of Herbie Hancock, spin the most depressing albums of the 21st century (that post will not be required reading), and I’ll unveil my latest innovation in marriage technology: Anti-Wife Movie Night.

Until then, Ryan Zinke says, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

 

I had a boss in the 1970s who once told me, when he wasn’t yelling at me or grabbing the ass of his favorite female subordinate, that every night he emptied the change from his pockets into empty tuna fish cans on his bureau. He claimed he harvested two or three hundred dollars a year from this happy system.

Remembering what I do of this gentleman, I’d guess that his hundreds of dollars went straight up his nose. I wish that Mr. Boss Man had said “Buy a U.S. savings bond every payday” or “Someday, everyone will have a computer in their home” or even “Yoga.” But he said to save your change, and it sounded like something I could do, and it involved money, which I like, so I did.

Humans are generally bad at long-term projects. We lack experience. We’re too easily distracted. But throwing coins every day into an empty tuna fish can is something any human can do. That includes me.

I eventually grew tired of the empty tuna fish can aesthetic and graduated to an empty mayonnaise jar. In the ’70s and early ’80s I paid for most things with cash, so my mayonnaise jar filled three or four times a year.

(It was difficult to get a credit card in the 1970s. The banks feared that we cardholders would fall into debt and not be able to repay what we owed. They hadn’t figured out that they’d make more money if they pushed us into debt and we never repaid them.)

I collected about as much money as the boss said I would. I took my coins to the bank, the bank handed me the cash, and I immediately spent it on books or music or my favorite female subordinate.

(Editor’s note: She’s not actually my subordinate. That is a literary construction. #Justkidding #Nothimtoo)

Futurists have long predicted the paperless office and the cashless society

If you work in an office, you know paper isn’t going anywhere. But we’ve made progress toward a cashless society. It now takes me almost two years to fill the jar, even with the help of my wife and sometimes my Dad, a kid from the Depression who never met a penny he didn’t like.

Last month, I decided my jar was full. I took it to my credit union, Unitus, the one bank in town that still offers the use of a no-fee coin-counting machine to its depositors. I poured in the metal tide, the machine funneled everything through a series of sluices, channels, and gates, ejecting Canadian coins and anything that had been beaten flat by a truck or a train, and spat out a receipt. I took the receipt to the teller, who handed me cash on the barrelhead. As they sang on Portlandia, the dream of the 1890s is alive in Portland.

It occurs to me that my habit of dropping coins in a jar and spending the jarful might be a metaphor or a psychodrama. I grew up in a family where our unofficial mission was to stockpile objects (in Latin, “Multa res accumulare,” or literally, “If I get rid of this, I know I’ll need it in 20 years, and then where will I be?”). You stockpiled objects until they disappeared and were forgotten, and then you had the pleasure of stockpiling the same objects all over again.

Maybe filling and purging my jar is my way of undoing the family chaos. Then again, sometimes a jar of coins is just a jar of coins.

Tonight’s challenge: How much money does my empty mayonnaise jar hold? The person who comes the closest to the average figure will be mercilessly interviewed for this blog.

Random Pick of the Day
Stevie Wonder, Talking Book (1972)

You will never tire of blasting “Superstition” out of your boombox, your stereo, your computer, your tablet, your phone, your gramophone, your car, your scooter, your bike, your Segway, your yacht, your car ferry, your jet pack, or the nanoprobes Google implanted in your neural core while you were downloading that cat video. Talking Book belongs in every music library between here and the Kuiper Belt.

If you were a teenager in the 1970s, this record was part of the soundtrack of your life, as every song in this set made it to AM and FM radio. A couple of the ballads are slow; “Lookin’ for Another Pure Love” occupies what would shortly become Billy Joel territory, if not Tony Orlando & Dawn territory. But any complaints melt away before the majesty of the closing track: “I believe when I fall in love with you/it’ll be forever.” C’mon, let’s fall in love.

Random Pan of the Day
Bell Biv Devoe, Three Stripes (2017)

Their first album since Bell Biv Devoe in 2001. The first few tracks rock hard. The rest of the album is mostly crooning. The one thematic element that unites their material is their refusal to stop saying their own name. They’re really just a gospel group that likes loud music.

 

For Christmas, my dear and honored friend Joy was given a $300 gift certificate to the best record store in Portland, Oregon: Music Millennium, home of new and used CDs, vinyl, and tapes. They also host concerts by bands that are so cool, they won’t tell me when they’re coming to the store.

If someone had given me a $300 gift certificate to the best record store in Portland, Oregon, I would’ve shoved the 10 essentials into my backpack and disappeared for the day. Not Joy. She had the store divide this bounty into six equal parts, one of which she gave to me. She may have been trying to teach me a lesson.

People say the compact disc is dead. Fuck you.

Or at best on life support, according to Fivethirtyeight. OK, statheads, tell that to the barbarian armies, with an average age of 30, who every day reenact the sacking of Rome at Music Millennium. I had to compete with them as I flew through the store with my want list in one hand and my wife in the other. We had to stay longer than I’d planned because the refs gave me 2 minutes for tripping, 2 minutes for elbowing, 2 minutes for slashing, 2 minutes for high-sticking, 2 minutes for charging, 2 minutes for holding, 2 minutes for cross-checking, 5 minutes for board-checking, and a 10-minute misconduct.

(This happened in December, so it doesn’t count toward my improved behavior in 2018.)

With Deborah’s help, I found six CDs and went over my limit by only $4. An average of 67¢ per CD beats yard-sale prices, plus I can finally use the ¢ symbol. Here’s what I hauled home!

The Bad Plus, Prog (2007)

I dug this one out of the jazz section. I never made it as far as the classical bunker. Prog was the only record I bought that day that I hadn’t heard something from, and the only one that the hip Portlandia cashier was thrilled by. After one spin, I was thrilled, too. I love Prog, even the parts I don’t understand.

Their cover of Rush’s 1981 epic, “Tom Sawyer,” smacked me like a sneaker wave. And I’ve been smacked by a sneaker wave. Forgive me, Bob and Doug McKenzie, because I know Rush is your favorite band, but The Bad Plus’ decision to strip “Tom Sawyer” of its substandard lyrics and Geddy Lee’s puny human vocal improved this thing 1,000% before they even started playing.

There are only three musicians in The Bad Plus – Reid Anderson on bass, Ethan Iverson on piano, David King on drums – and yet they produce a ferocious attack. David King must’ve been spitting sticks in the studio. If Gene Krupa and Keith Moon came back to life and listened to this tsunami of beats, they’d drop dead. To paraphrase my Grandma Bella, “They’d drop dead twice.”

I haven’t heard drumming like this since Buddy Rich battled Animal on The Muppets.

Consumer warning: If you hate jazz, nothing on Prog will change your mind, particularly the piano break at the 2-minute mark of “Tom Sawyer,” which almost sent me to the ER.

This disc is screamingly good…minus a few misfires. Like their cover of Burt Bacharach’s “This Guy’s in Love with You.” The music never detonates or even fizzes. Frankly, any song traveling this slow should have a damn stripper in front of it.

Diana Ross, Icon (2012)

A greatest-hits album masquerading as a studio album. I fell for it. What strikes me about this set is how it showcases Ross at her very best (“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Remember Me”) and her very worst (“Touch Me in the Morning”) in the years 1970-1981. The difference between the highs and lows is about as far as from my desk to Star Base 12, but Ross’ voice and delivery are magnificent throughout. (Maybe not on “Love Hangover.” Disco was the record company’s idea, not Diana’s.)

Some of the best writers of the era wrote for Ross – Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, Gerry Goffin, Carole Bayer Sager, Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers…and Lionel Richie (“Endless Love”). Too bad they couldn’t swap that joker for Springsteen, Bowie, Gil Scott-Heron, Joan Armatrading, or Patti Smith.

Happy Mondays, Double Easy: The U.S. Singles (1993)

If you haven’t already, watch the definitive account of the Manchester (“Madchester”) music scene of the late 1980s/early 1990s, 24 Hour Party People. The title comes from a Happy Mondays song. If you’re too proud to admit you like electronic dance music and that you’d like to go to a rave and not come back, Happy Mondays are the band for you. They take that rave aesthetic of dance beats, Ecstasy, and waving your hands in the air like you just don’t care and camouflage it with rock ’n’ roll. Top-notch driving music, too.

(Editor’s note: Run-DMSteve hasn’t been to a rave since the week after Thomas Edison invented music.)

Beck, Mellow Gold (1993)

I stand by my statement that Beck is a god, but when I listen to Mellow Gold I wonder if he’s also a moron. On this disc, words mean whatever Beck thinks they mean, and the music is not so much composed as dumped in a blender. Still, you can’t argue with “Beercan,” and then there’s that thing about a loser, and anyway, Beck was right when he said, “You can’t write if you can’t relate,” so there we are.

Gary Numan, Savages (2017)

I haven’t listened to a Gary Numan album since Replicas and The Pleasure Principle, both from 1979. I don’t know why. I guess I got busy. I play both of those a lot, though.

Then I read a review of Savages on Verian’s blog, Thirty Three And A Third, where he reviewed every album released in 2017 from every continent and at least three planets. Verian. Don’t you have a job? Is this your job? How do I get your job?

Gary Numan 40 years on is a revelation. Gone is the interstellar frostiness I fell in love with in the ’70s. Now he sounds as if he has lived among humans. He also sounds as if he’s accepted Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails as his personal savior. Savages is repetitive, but the repetition builds into something so dark and dramatic, a killer burger topped with mushrooms and doom, that when I arrive at the office after listening to this on my commute I want to make a music video in the conference room in which civilizations collapse and are reborn, not trade anecdotes in the kitchen about what we did this weekend.

You could get drunk on this record – drunk as in too much bloodwine at a Klingon funeral – and yet in the midst of songs such as “My Name Is Ruin” and “When the World Comes Apart” there’s an honest love song, “And It All Began with You.” Oh My God of Love.

On the album cover, Numan is dressed like a resident of a desert planet who’s about to steal the Millennium Falcon. What else do you need to know?

David Bowie, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972)

Bowie took the glam-rock rage of his era (Mott the Hoople, Queen, Marc Bolan, New York Dolls, Elton John), added it to his hard-rock bag of tricks, and then performed everything as if he had just fallen to Earth. Ziggy Stardust is one of the more difficult classic albums to listen to. The highlights are “Moonage Daydream,” “Starman,” and “Suffragette City,” but there’s plenty to enjoy or puzzle over. The Ramones got their one guitar riff from this record, and if you wasted your teen years playing Space Invaders, you can sacrifice a lamb to Bowie, because this is where he invented the name.

Thank you for so much fun, my dear and honored friend Joy. Inspired by your good example, I’m going to start right now being a better person in 2018. (I gave myself January to gear up for this.) Let me begin by saying to whatever low-life borrowed my Ziggy Stardust CD years ago and never gave it back: I love you, man!

 

In 1980, one of my stories appeared in a science fiction anthology called New Dimensions. I was a member of the Science Fiction Writers of America at the time, and the following year I learned that two people had recommended my story for a Nebula Award.

I never got anywhere in this process, so I don’t know the details, but I believe it ran approximately like this: If you collected enough recommendations, your story was entered in the playoff bracket. There followed a series of competitions, involving singing, dancing, evening wear, swimsuits, and hand-to-hand combat with erasers and typewriter ribbons. The stories that survived the playoffs entered the medal round. One story eventually won a Nebula. It all started with someone taking the trouble to say that she or he liked your story.

One of my two recommenders was Marta Randall. I’ve always appreciated this, Marta, wherever you are today, but since you’re the editor who bought the story for New Dimensions this was not a surprise.

The surprise was the other person: Ursula K. Le Guin.

What? The author of The Left Hand of Darkness, which taught this teenage boy that science fiction could be about something other than rockets and robots and fearless North American white men defeating dark-skinned alien hordes with the help of a few comic Irishmen, liked something I wrote?

“The only sensible ends of literature,” Nathaniel Hawthorne said, “are, first, the pleasurable toil of writing; second, the gratification of one’s family and friends; and lastly, the solid cash.” Not bad, Nat, but you forgot something: The otherworldly feeling you experience when something you wrote speaks to someone you don’t know.

Eventually I met Ursula and spent some time with her. I’m unsure how this began. Deborah had taken three of her writing workshops in Oregon – in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, on the McKenzie River, and at Cannon Beach; Ursula had a fine sense of place – so it must’ve been in the wake of the first one.

We had dinner a couple of times with Ursula and her husband, Charles. We met their cats. We stayed overnight at their Cannon Beach beach house, where our dog Emma, who had her moods, totally charmed them. Ursula thought that Emma, racing around us on the beach, looked like Isadora Duncan, her scarf jauntily thrown over one shoulder.

Benjamin Franklin said it best in his Autobiography: “When first you wish to make a favorable impression on a new acquaintance, send in your dog.”

In a discussion with Ursula about writing I referred to my challenges in getting published. I was probably making a joke, but she listened seriously and said, “I’ve never understood that.” She wasn’t being nice. Making nice was not her thing. Ursula could be quite sharp. In her presence, you never wanted to say something stupid (my forte). These four words were enough to make me worship her, but of course I already did.

We never saw them often, and in this century even less. An occasional email. Christmas cards. She drew pictures of funny cats and dogs in the style of Thurber. She called herself “Buntho.” She called Deborah “Gort” because she’s tall. She called me “Dominant Male” (misspelled “Donimant”) because I am. (Shut up.) She was there in the background of our lives, writing another book I want to read (Lavinia, Buffalo Gals), giving another interview or talk.

How lucky we all were.

Au revoir, Ursula. Thanks for the vote of confidence in me. If I had gotten as far as the swimsuit competition, I would’ve given it my best.