Category Archives: Memoir

Christmas among the Heathens

We weren’t Christian, but we kept Christmas. My mother subscribed to the Dickensian school of yule revellers. Each year, a month before Christmas, she would make a plum pudding, which to my single-digit mind did not look like pudding, and since I helped her make it, I knew it didn’t have plums in it, but lots of candied fruit and a little flour, and some suet.

One year my mother sent me down to Trent’s Market to buy the suet (she was tied to the house by her brood of six), and I can picture her handwriting on the note she wrote for me to give to the butcher: suet. Come to find out it’s just fat, but in later years she had to special-order it (and the goose) because it was no longer a standard item in the butcher case.

The plum pudding was wonderfully intense after being turned out of the fluted metal form and  flambéed and served with hard sauce, which didn’t look like sauce, but it was hard, like fossilized whipped cream.

Unlike any other family I knew, we did not have turkey at Christmas, but goose. A small, dark bird that like the plum pudding concentrated its flavor and substituted quality for quantity. I have an early oral memory of biting through the crisp, oily skin into the seriously dark meat. There was no white meat.

Another necessity for Christmas dinner was rutabaga, that big yellow turnip that was peeled, chunked, boiled and mashed, and produced a pale orange cousin to the mashed potatoes, not as hearty, and a little insipid, if “insipid” can have a positive connotation. A root vegetable we ate only twice a year, at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and its rarity made it taste good too.

On Grove Street we didn’t have a fireplace, so we hung our stockings with care on the drawer pulls of a chest in the living room. I have an image of Santa Claus coming through the front door instead of down the chimney, since we didn’t have one. I never saw him, but I pictured him stepping in off the porch, and I appreciated his flexibility.

We knew about Santa mainly through the ritual reading of “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” on Christmas Eve. We’d gather around my father, whose deep voice (which I did not inherit) was laced with the aroma of pipe smoke as he read the magic words. “And Mama in her kerchief and I in my cap / had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.” What a strange world, where people wore hats to bed! And I loved the idea of settling my brain — it’s something I still struggle to do — and I’m sure that our folks were hoping we could settle them too, in our half-crazed anticipation of waking up from a winter’s nap that we hoped wouldn’t be too long.

When we did awake (on Christmas you don’t just wake up, you awake) we had to examine our stockings before turning to the presents under the tree. You put your whole arm down the sock to find Brazil nuts, almonds, filberts, walnuts, and pecans, and a tangerine, and a Droste chocolate apple, from Holland. To this day I’m disappointed when I have to settle for chocolate apples of some other brand, or — sacrilege of sacrileges — a chocolate orange.

I knew we were celebrating Jesus’s birth, and I knew about the star and the shepherds and the wise men, and I knew and loved the songs and their mysterious language: “God rest ye merry gentlemen.” What was “ye”? “How still we see thee lie.” What was “thee”? “The joys and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” I understood joys and fears, and all the years. There’s a wondrous melancholy in those lines that I felt at an early age.

I didn’t know that people considered Jesus divine, and I didn’t have any concept of God. We were humanist children, pint-sized agnostics without knowing it. In our Howes exceptionalism (which I didn’t yet know was so exceptional, and I didn’t yet know how much our family identity depended so much on being different) we had warm, pajama-clad family Christmas mornings that celebrated midwinter, and generosity, and plenty, and we did it without a god or church.

I know you might say that God was in our midst, even if we didn’t call it that, and you’re welcome to put it that way. But it was Scrooge’s rebirth as much as Jesus’s birth that guided us in those days. The possiblity of reaching into ourselves to find the hopes and fears of all the years, to discover a warmth and a hope that were mysterious and all the more enduring for being nameless.

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A Sled Ride in the Alps

A Sled Ride in the Alps

Between New Year’s Day and Epiphany in 1983, our friend from the University of Klagenfurt, Tina Macher, invited Christen and me to visit her family in St. Lambrecht, an Alpine market town in Styria, Austria. St. Lambrecht is home to an architecturally significant Benedictine abbey and a dynamite factory. At that time, the factory was owned by the Swedish firm Nobel Industries, but now it belongs to Austin Powder, based in Cleveland, Ohio.

The Macher family was very hospitable. Tina took us to see the magnificent eighteenth-century manger scene in the abbey church, with over 130 figures and a mountain backdrop over six feet tall. Her father was the game warden for the local woods, and he showed us home movies of stags at the salt lick and feeding station, and we met the large eagle owl (German Uhu) he kept in protective captivity. One night we ate stag liver and mashed potatoes—delicious! And Tina let us help her make apple strudel, which involved stretching a single piece of dough to cover a large dining-room table.

The unforgettable centerpiece of our visit, however, was the evening we went sledding. We set off in the afternoon with two European style sleds, which sit higher and are shorter than a Radio Flyer and are made entirely of wood, except for strips of metal on the underside of the curled runners.

Tina didn’t tell us the details of what we were about to do. We got on a bus full of skiers heading up the local mountain, the Grebenzen (about 1800 m / 6000 ft). I recall hearing music on the bus by Falco’s former punk group, Drahdiwaberl, singing a song called “Lonely,” which sounds like Ruben and the Jets and has the unforgettable line “I asked the Lord up above / what is this thing morals [sic] call love?”

When we got above the tree line, to the bottom of the ski slopes and the beginning of the t-bar lift, Tina hailed friends of hers on the lift and asked them to drag our sleds up the mountain. (Tina had been hailing friends of hers all day—St. Lambrecht has about 1000 residents.) We trudged up through the snow along the course of the ski lift until we reached the top of the mountain, from which we could see over toward Klagenfurt, which was shrouded in fog, as it often was.

We went to the ski lodge and met the owners and more friends of Tina’s. We had some nice homemade schnapps (which is not syrupy, but clear like vodka) and fresh-baked rye bread, and Tina’s friends gave us some loaves of bread to take back to her family.

The last skiers left the lodge for the last run before sunset, but we were still sitting in the lodge, wondering what was to become of the sledding expedition. We soon found out. As the skiers disappeared below in the blue twilight, we sat on our sleds, me on one and Christen sitting behind Tina on the other, at the top of the ski slope, and pushed off.

A sled can go very fast on a ski slope. Very fast. I was also in charge of keeping the fresh rye bread under my coat, but I managed to hold onto it the one time I wiped out. The snow powder flew, and we flew until we reached the tree line. The slopes were behind us, but our run was just beginning.

We got on a path that wound down the side of the mountain through the woods. It was dark, but there must have been occasional lights, because I never ran into a tree. You steer a European sled with your feet directly on the ground, and  ice was building up on my pant legs. I remember looking down and seeing the lights of the village far below, and it was beautiful, like an impossible postcard. The whole run lasted about one and a half hours. The trail led us directly into St. Lambrecht, and we went home and warmed up, for a long time.

Christen told me later that as they descended, Tina would indicate points of interest such as a spot where one friend had cracked his head open and another had broken her leg. And Tina kept calling out, “Look out for the pumps!” Christen wondered why there were pumps along the mountain trail, and hoped Tina could steer around them. Then she realized Tina was saying “bumps” with an Austrian accent.

Tina was a student of English at Klagenfurt, so we often spoke English as well as German. Her father liked to try out his English too, and the afternoon before we went sledding, which was the day after an attempted cross-country skiing outing that had been foiled by freezing rain, he asked where Christen was. I said she was upstairs taking a nap, and he said sympathetically, “Ah, she’s upstairs collecting power.”

As it turned out, she needed more power than she could have guessed to make the unforgettable sled run down the Grebenzen in the early days of January 1983, still vivid almost thirty-four years later.

The Acoustic Jargon Bicentennial Summer Tour 1976

Part 1: The Making of Acoustic Jargon

It was my second day in Snyder Hall, a dorm at Michigan State University. I walked past my R.A.’s room and saw a lanky guy with dark shoulder-length hair and a dark beard sitting on his bed playing a nylon-string guitar. This was Dave Babak. His friendly eyes greeted me. I was a shy kid, not quite eighteen, but I had a calling card just in case my personality wasn’t working: a mandolin.

I mustered my courage and said, “Hey, I play the mandolin. Maybe we could play sometime?”

“Cool. We can get Phil down the hall to play with us. He’s really good.”

Before long I was part of a beery, all-night jam session in Dave’s room. Phil Klum, the really good guitar player, was there, along with Leon Luczak and his sweet little Gibson, and a tall funny guy named Swanee, and probably a couple of other guys.

I remember for sure that we played “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere,” with Dave singing. We probably played “The Accident” by John Prine, with Leon on vocals. And “Moondance.” It was the night after a kegger, and some of our beer was leftovers in plastic gallon jugs, slightly flat. But who cared? This was college life.

We lived in Precinct 17 of Snyder Hall, which was nicknamed “Stalag 17” after the Billy Wilder POW-camp movie. Eventually this motley collection of pickers and songsters with no name became a motley collection of pickers and songsters with a name: the Stalag 17 Blues Band. Later, Frank Siciliano joined us on percussion, and so did Bob “BC” Cook on flute and saxophone.

We debuted at a coffeehouse in the Snyder-Phillips dorm cafeteria. I had never played for an audience before. Leon and I also peeled off that fall and played at the legendary Brody Hall cafeteria. My eight-string social prop was doing its job.

Swanee noticed that he and I had the same cheap Yamaha guitar and the same shitty little mustache, so we had to form the spinoff duo Crusty Dog. In spite of our important similarities, Swanee was at least 8 inches taller than me. Or maybe I was 8 inches shorter than him. Anyway, the disparity was part of the musical comedy act.

Crusty Dog performed a Swanee original titled “Every Day I Miss You More (or Less),” and an old folk song, “My Sweetheart’s a Mule in the Mines.” I told the audience: “This song goes back to the days of the Pharaohs’ mines. It was passed on in different versions over the centuries, and finally wound up in the Appalachians. We learned it off a John Denver record.”1

The band was a big part of my social life at MSU. I drank lots of beer, but just drinking beer was boring. Playing music gave my uptight little heart a sense of purpose while still allowing me to get debauched. I hung out with musicians more than I hung out with my fellow German majors, and I loved cultivating this ragtag identity while learning about Heinrich von Kleist and Goethe and Brecht. Swanee called me a “derelectual.”

Dave moved on, and we settled into a configuration with two lead singers, Phil and Leon. Phil leaned toward rock and pop featuring the major seventh chords that sounded so rich on his Gibson Hummingbird. America and Stephen Stills were two of his favorites. Leon walked the line between rock and country: Van Morrison, John Prine, Jackson Browne, New Riders of the Purple Sage. Leon was from Saginaw, and the twang in his voice earned him the moniker “The Saginaw Cowboy.”

Phil’s and Leon’s musical interests intersected in songs by the likes of the Allman Brothers and Neil Young, and their voices layered with BC’s, pulling lush three-part harmonies out of the air of that era of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and the Eagles.

On a typical evening we’d play Van Morrison’s “And It Stoned Me” and “Wild Night,” America’s “Ventura Highway,” Dan Hicks’s “Payday Blues,” the Allmans’ “Whipping Post,” Buffalo Springfield’s “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing,” and a bluegrass-inflected “I’ve Just Seen a Face” (a.k.a. “Fallin’”) with five-part harmonies.

I’d sing an occasional lead — less often than George but more often than Ringo. My favorites were “Seeds and Stems Again” by Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen and “Ooh La La” by the Faces. I figured I could sing at least as good as Ronnie Wood. Swanee told me I sounded like a regular guy who could sing.

In January 1975, we got a gig at the Peanut Barrel, a popular bar on Grand River Avenue just off campus. (It’s still there.) This was our chance to announce to the world, or at least to twenty or thirty of its representatives, that we were dropping the name Stalag 17 Blues Band. No one lived in Stalag 17 anymore and we hardly ever played blues. Now we called ourselves Acoustic Jargon.

Left:  "An event." Flyer made by my RA, John LaLonde. 
Right: A note of congratulations from fans. 

Ooh La La - Acoustic Jargon live at the Peanut Barrel

In the summer of 1975 I went to Germany for the first time, spending nine weeks on the MSU study-abroad program in Mayen. I took my mandolin along as a carry-on, and at the farewell party I borrowed a guitar and played “Goodnight Irene” and “Midnight Special” in front of a bunch of Germans. This required some intestinal fortitude (a.k.a. guts) that I owed to Acoustic Jargon.

In November 1975 we made a tape (it really was a tape) to send to Dave Babak, who had moved to Aurora, Colorado. This recording still exists, and in 1998 Phil, who has been a mastering engineer in New York for many years now, mastered it and sent me a CD (it really was a CD).

It’s ragged around the edges, but the bond of playing together for two years is audible. We are reading each other’s musical minds. The harmonies really fit that cliché about harmonies: they are lush. Between the tunes there’s some funny banter and great affection going out to Dave— now poignant since he died of cancer in 2010.

During spring break of 1976 I missed out on some Acoustic Jargon shenanigans because I went out to Massachusetts to visit a young woman I thought might be my girlfriend. At the beginning of the year, she had transferred to Tufts. My advice to romantic young musicians: if given the choice between following your music and following your heart, opt for the music. Your heart may be persuasive, but it’s stupid. And you can always retune a mandolin.2

There was exciting news back in East Lansing: a friend was working with us to organize a summer tour Up North over the Fourth of July. This was 1976, the year of our country’s Bicentennial, and we were bound to celebrate it in style.

 

  1. All totally untrue.
  2. But it will go right out of tune again.

 

Part 2: The Tour  (posted July 4, 2016)

In the summer of ‘76 I was living with my parents in Royal Oak, Michigan, and working at Hagelstein’s machine shop in the next town north, Clawson. My parents’ neighbor Don, known as Neighbor Don, worked there and helped me get the job. I learned to run drill presses and milling machines, and my life was filled with 9-hour workdays, 6-day work weeks, grayish-white lubrication fluid, and metal filings.

In June Neighbor Don was gracious enough to host Acoustic Jargon on his back deck for a rehearsal/performance. (It is a sign of professionalism to distinguish between rehearsal and performance.) My family could hear the band, the band could show off a little bit, and we were having a reunion.

Working so much, I was overly excited to get away for a long Fourth-of-July weekend. The Fourth was on a Sunday in 1976 and Monday was a holiday too. I still can’t figure out how my parents could afford to give me use of the family car all weekend. I have a clear memory of my emotions lifting as the station wagon banked onto the entry ramp from Telegraph Road to I-696.

My first stop was East Lansing, where Acoustic Jargon assembled for a pre-tour party and maybe a little rehearsal. At the party I talked a long time to a young woman I knew from the Snyder-Phillips dorm, Christen Giblin. Thoughts of her accompanied me all weekend and then all summer long.

 

A digression on nicknames. Before I started at MSU, I went to a scholarship competition in East Lansing that involved taking a proficiency test and getting a taste of dorm life. I stayed overnight with some students in McDonel Hall. One of the guys in the suite was nicknamed “Scummy” (his last name was Scully) and another one was “Warthog” (I don’t remember his last name). I was amazed and amused that they actually called each other by those names the whole time.

Little did I suspect that within a year or so I would be part of a group of people who called each other nicknames the whole time. Swanee (Bob Swanson), BC (Bob Cook), and Bo (Mark Seaman) already came with their nicknames. Frank got the least outlandish handle, “Frankie.” Phil was P-Dog (aka Dog Man). Leon (now Leo) was, as already mentioned, the Saginaw Cowboy, which of course morphed into “Saginaw Cowpie,” which sometimes became “Pie Man” or just “Pie.” A guy in Snyder Hall named Howie Fixler started calling me by the French version of my name, “Geoffroi,” which the Saginaw Cowboy pronounced “Geoffwah,” which was reduced to “Wah.” There are still people who call me “Geoffwah,” “the Wah,” “Wah,” “Wah Boy,” or “Wah Man.” In fact, the night that Christen (the girl from the party) and I announced our engagement to her family, she said “The Wah and I have decided to get married.”

Digression on the digression. When I was offered a $50 scholarship on the basis of the test I took, my father stated, “One is tempted to tell them to roll up their 50 dollars and put it where the sun don’t shine.” I’m sure my father thought things like this all the time, but he didn’t usually say them. 

 

I wish I could write a chronological, blow-by-blow account of that long Bicentennial weekend, but forty years later I just have fragments of memories. I’ll try to translate these mind chunks into bits of story, and maybe something will gel.

We caravaned our way Up North, with the five-member band and some friends of the group, Swanee, Claudia, and Bo. We stopped in Saginaw, where Leon and Bo were from, to lay in some provisions. In the Meijer’s parking lot I got out of my folks’ station wagon and joined the others in a van while someone went into the store. We were listening to Gram Parsons, whom I’d never heard before, and I was hooked right away. “In My Hour of Darkness” with Emmylou Harris: wow. Bo looked out the window at his home town and said, “So this is the fuckin’ Naw!”

Our Saturday night gig was at a hotel in Boyne City. We set up to practice in a big empty room, and for the first time I plugged in the instrument pickup I’d borrowed. Hearing my mandolin resounding from the speakers changed my life. Someone, our host I think, had a drum set, and jamming with a drummer changed my life a little too.

That night in the hotel lounge there were about three people besides our retinue listening to us. It was a ski resort in July. Oh well, we needed a rehearsal anyway. I remember trying to play Phil’s cheap Norma bass guitar, with the G string missing. The song was “My Girl,” which I also sang lead on. I don’t know why I thought I was talented enough to sing Motown while playing an instrument I didn’t know how to play.

In my mental image, we’re looking out from the low stage toward the long bar across the room, with empty tables fading to the right and left into brown shadows. One of our Up North benefactors must have arranged this gig, because we were able to stay free that night in the nearly deserted ski hotel.

On Sunday the Fourth we were scheduled to play a community cookout, in Charlevoix, I think. We stood on a big outdoor stage, with a large audience kind of off in the distance. My main memory is the clouds of chicken smoke from the huge grill wafting over and shrouding us on the stage. I have no idea whether anyone listened or how we played. I’m sure we had some fun.

In the evening we played the “Community Cabaret” at the Holiday Inn in Petoskey. We were opening for some clown called Jango Edwards. No, he really is a clown: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jango_Edwards . Kenny Rogers’s cousin Dan’s band, Dan Rogers County Line, was playing an engagement at the Holiday Inn and we got to use their sound system, which made us feel pretty special in a Kevin Bacon sort of way. I remember being crammed onto a shallow stage, playing to a good crowd. In my self-centered recall I’m singing “Ooh La La.” We finish, and someone in the crowd yells, “rock ‘n’ roll!” I still haven’t decided whether that was sarcastic or not.

We must have camped out that night. I remember seeing the Northern Lights, throwing a frisbee the next day on a Lake Michigan beach, and finding a rural roadhouse where the beer was 25 cents a glass.

According to some flyers I’ve kept as mementos, we played the “Community Cabaret” again on Monday, this time in Charlevoix at a place called The Weathervane, which is still there (http://www.staffords.com/weathervane-restaurant/). I don’t have a specific memory of that gig, probably because everything was overlaid by worry about having to leave after a 10:00 pm show to get back to the Detroit area to return the car and make it to work on Tuesday morning.

Claudia needed to get back too, so she rode all night with me in my parents’ station wagon. By the time we reached Oakland County the sun was up and I could barely keep my eyes open. I fell asleep for a second in heavy traffic on I-696. Luckily, I did not kill myself and Claudia, destroy the family car, injure or kill some unsuspecting commuters, and fail to make it in time to punch in at Hagelstein’s.

Actually, I did make it in time, but I realized, probably encouraged by my parents, that the second-stupidest thing I could do on July 6, 1976, would be to go to work, fall asleep on the job, and run my hand under a drill press. I had already done the first-stupidest thing.

Thus ended the Acoustic Jargon Bicentennial Fourth of July Summer Tour of 1976. Even without dying in a fiery crash on I-696, it is my most memorable Fourth of July ever. And forty years later I hope to keep it that way.