Getting My Footnote

Copies of the newly published I Can Read It All By Myself: The Beginner Books Story by Paul V. Allen arrived at my house last week. It’s a highly readable and extensively-researched history of Random House’s Beginner Books, one of the most innovative and successful children’s book imprints ever created. Founded in 1957 by Ted and Helen Geisel (Dr. and Mrs. Seuss) along with publisher Phyllis Cerf, it created a whole new type of books for children aged 3 to 9. Some of its best-known titles include Cat in the Hat, Sam and the Firefly, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, Green Eggs and Ham, Go Dog Go and The Berenstain Bears. You probably read some of these titles when you were a kid, or had your own kids read them, maybe both.

So why am I, former rocker and crime fiction writer, extolling the virtues of this scholarly history of children’s literature? Well, first off it’s a top notch piece of work, but also because I was able to make a small contribution to the research. My father, Lynn G Fayman, provided photographic illustrations for three books in the series. Mr. Allen discovered my post about my dad’s photographic work and contacted me for an interview. I was happy to share what I remembered about the books and the people involved in creating them. Paul may be a children’s literary specialist now, but like me he used to play in rock and roll bands, so we got along well. Kudos to him for doing such a great job on this book.

As to the title of this post? Well, The Sunburned Fedora gets quoted on page 175. That represents the first, and probably last time, any post from this blog gets noted in a scholarly publication.

I myself make a brief appearance on page 167. Among the memories I shared was one of the nine-year-old me having a temper tantrum which provided the ending to a book called Do You Know What I’m Going to Do Next Saturday? My first creative effort to make it into print! There’s more to that story, but I’ll save it for a later post.

For the month of June 2021, there’s a discount for anyone who wants to purchase a copy of the book. Use the code PCA2021 to get 30% off at the publisher’s website.

Guitar Audition Fails

I spent the first fifteen years of my adult life (and several years of my non-adult life) co-leading various rock and roll bands with my brother. In that time, we auditioned quite a few musicians, mostly guitar players. For whatever reason, that was always the biggest revolving door in our lineup. For every guy we hired (they were always guys back then) we probably interviewed and/or auditioned twenty more. We learned to watch for things they might say that would immediately disqualify them. Herewith a personal list, with translations for non-musicians:

Top Ten Things Guitar Players Say That Will End The Audition

10. I graduated from the Guitar Institute of Technology.
Translation: You have recently learned how to play a lot of scales very fast but have yet to develop any personal style or sense of taste.

9. I don’t use any effects, ’cause they’re bullshit.
Translation: You’re a techno-purist. You’re also a cheapskate. Okay if you’re Steve Cropper.

8. I play jazz. I shouldn’t have any trouble with your stuff
Translation: You will try to make all our songs into jazz songs. Neither of us will be happy about this.

7. I know a guy who works with name of the biggest band in town
Translation: You met a guy once who knows a guy who used to be a roadie for name of the biggest band in town. Yeah, I’ve met him too.

6. I never worked with a real drummer before
Translation: You have your own unique sense of rhythm that doesn’t involve regular time. Or you’ve only played with a drum machine in which case your rhythm will be so regular our drummer will throw sticks at you.

5. I can’t really play at a lower volume
Translation: You only have one sound/tone and we’re hearing it. You’ve never played an acoustic guitar

4. I can play the Blues. Sure. They’re easy.
Translation: Shows a lack of respect. You’ve learned the notes but not the feeling.

3. I don’t really play rhythm guitar
Translation: We’re not looking for Ritchie Blackmore, unless you’re actually him.

2. I’m looking for a band with a record contract
Translation: And we’re looking for a guitar player without any ego.

1. I wrote a song I think you guys should play
Translation: That’s nice. Let’s see if you can last three months as our guitar-player first

Heard any other good ones? Feel free to add drummers, keyboard players, etc to the list. This is an equal opportunity snark zone.

The Serendipitous Dylan Incident

We’ve been spending some time in Moab, Utah, hiking the red rocks and canyons, floating down the Colorado River and viewing the natural wonders of Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Little did I know when we planned this trip that one of its highlights would be a musical tribute to Bob Dylan.

Perusing event listings in the local newspaper I learned there were bluegrass concerts held every week at something called Moab’s Backyard Theatre and that one of the concerts would be a Bob Dylan 80th Birthday celebration. We decided to go. It was free, after all. What did we have to lose? (travel tip–always check the local newspapers, community message boards etc when you visit a new area; there’s treasure there you won’t find in your guidebooks and websites).

Just a block west of Main Street near the Mill Creek Parkway, the venue itself was about as homespun and sincere as you’ll ever encounter. A dirt lot surrounded by a wood fence. Simple painted backdrops, a string of lights above, and a scattered collection of plastic chairs that faced a small stage under a large cottonwood tree. We found some seats and settled in. The band, Quicksand Soup, started to play.

It was transcendent. I can’t explain why, not exactly, but some combination of the band’s skillfulness, the songs they chose to play and the bucolic setting made it wonderful. Because I was ready for wonder again, after a year too full of death and fear and vicious stupidity. By the time somewhere in the middle of Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door when the singer pitched his voice into the high lonesome to repeat the last verse it felt like a great illness had started to heal.

And as we walked home, flush with the sense of community and interconnection that live music can bring, I wondered if Bob Dylan himself might have liked this concert as much or more than any of the grander events dedicated to him.

A guitar and a voice. People gather to listen. Words and melody drift across the dry evening air as other voices and timbres chime in. The sun sets. The light changes. The songs linger deep in our bones like essential minerals. They sustain.

The Wonderful Weirdness of Sparks

AVRO, CC BY-SA 3.0 NL, via Wikimedia Commons

Before punk, before New Wave, before alt-rock there was Sparks, the most idiosyncratic, iconoclastic band of the 1970s, perhaps ever. They’re the ultimate pop cult band. In the 1970s, liking and listening to Sparks made you the member of small and dubious fan club. And, like The Velvet Underground or Big Star, their influence has always been greater than their record sales.

Unlike those two bands, Sparks are still around and still making new music. Twenty-five albums and counting. Annette, an original musical film starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, will be released this year. Best of all, there’s a Sparks documentary on the way (directed by Edgar Wright of Shaun of the Dead and Baby Driver, just the man for the job).

Arriving in theatres Summer 2021. The Sparks Brothers directed by Edgar Wright.

In practical terms Sparks is a duo, brothers Ron and Russell Mael, who’ve hired different musicians as backing bands over the years. Ron plays keyboards and writes most of the songs while Russell plays frontman and handles the acrobatic vocal duties.

How to describe Sparks music? Hard to do since it changes so much from album to album, but I’ll try:

  • Kurt Weill meets The Who
  • Cole Porter meets Oingo Boingo
  • Randy Newman meets Roxy Music
  • Gilbert and Sullivan meet Monty Python

While other pop music of the seventies went deep with rootsy introspection or virtuosic jamming, Sparks took a tightly-crafted, absurdist approach to their song making. The titles alone give you an idea–Achoo, Pineapple, Everybody’s Stupid, Amateur Hour, I Bought the Mississippi River, This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us, Happy Hunting Ground, Angst in my Pants, I Married a Martian and When do I Get to Sing My Way, just to name a few. I mean what other pop act would reimagine Faust as a radio play where the ultimate art-house filmmaker sells his soul to Hollywood (The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman)?

Then there’s their disconcerting live presentation–Russell’s boy band curls and puppy-like energy contrasted with Ron’s intimidating deadpan glare and Hitler mustache (more pencil-styled now). It’s an earlier and more committed version of Cheap Trick’s glamor boy/goofball dichotomy. Here’s how I first saw them, on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert TV show in 1974.

Who the heck are these guys?

Where to start listening to Sparks? I’ll always be partial to the four-album run of Kimono My House, Propaganda, Indiscreet and Big Beat from the mid to late 1970s. Big Beat is their most straightforward rock and roll effort while Indiscreet boasts a startling mix of cabaret, rock, and slightly bent show tune styles. Lyrically, you can expect a wide range of character studies from sympathetic and strange to mildly revolting.

Glam rock, power pop, synth pop, electronic pop, art-pop, whatever you want to call it, Sparks have always obstinately followed their own quirky muse. Below are a couple of their more recent efforts, the first an unusually straightforward paean to a longtime love, the second a love song to a. . .lawnmower. I told you they were different.

The Guns at Bird Rock

Recruits practicing their skills at the Training Center. Photo from San Diego History Center

Officer Jake Stirling parked his patrol car on the sharp bend of Camino de la Costa, glanced at the house across the street and wondered if the man inside had managed to kill himself yet. He opened the car door and climbed out. Waves crashed on the rocky shore below, where skeletal silhouettes of abandoned artillery batteries loomed against the purpling sky, remnants of a U.S. Navy training facility from the Second World War. The guns had gone silent after the bombing of Hiroshima ten years earlier. The Japanese invasion of La Jolla, California had never arrived.

The above paragraph is from the opening of my novel-in-progress, Esmeralda by the Ocean. I knew some of San Diego’s WWII history when I started my research for the book, but the story of these artillery guns was new to me. The facility was known as the Naval Anti-Aircraft Gunnery Training School.

The facilities included anti-aircraft guns, ammunition magazines, storage buildings, barracks, and gasoline pumps. The first rounds were fired on September 2, 1942 and continued day and night until the facility closed down on November 3, 1945. Over 300,000 men and officers were trained there over the course of the war. Needless to say, if you lived in the area, it was not a pleasant experience.

When the “big guns boomed” at Bird Rock, they damaged the houses and buildings, breaking windows as their “millions of rounds of ammunition” were expended.

Photograph from the San Diego History Center

The training center was located between Bird Rock and False Point (known then as Gunnery Point).

The Navy maintained the site as a surplus supply center for a short time after the war, but facilities were demolished and the property decommissioned in the late 1940s. The post-war building boom soon overran the area and nothing remains of the facility today. You can get a great view of the area and imagine what it might have been like from Calumet Park.