Thursday, November 19, 2015


Lost Civilizations, from left to right: Leah Gage, 
Mike Sebastian, Patrick Whitehead, and Ted Zook

I hope that listeners will pardon my loud “Oi! Oi!” at the beginning of the first set, but I borrowed that riff from the Sleaford Mods song, “Middlemen”, in order to quieten our garrulous audience at the Black Squirrel, November 15, 2015. A fabulous renewal of the Lost Civilizations + Duo Exchange collaboration ensued. For each gathering, Rod Smith and I provide the words (the “Duo Exchange”) amidst the music, and we always label the most recent outing “the best”, this one without hesitation. Connoisseurs of our collaboration may recall that we script nothing in advance. The music as well as the poems find their own order as the event flows forward.

For a free listen of the first set (39 minutes) click [HERE]
For a free listen of the second set (33 minutes) click [HERE]

Ted Zook (basscello) and Mike Sebastian (saxophones) form the core of the Lost Civilizations Experimental Music Project, to which they invite guest musicians. On this night, Leah Gage sat-in on drums, and Patrick Whitehead joined on trumpet and flugelhorn, making us a six-member outfit. Rod and I attempt to build a city—many voices and humors—every time Duo Exchange sets out, and yet, no matter how much we may anticipate the evening’s trajectory, the music inspires us not only for its abiding quality, but also for the many surprising ways in which the musicians might push, embolden, and shape our performance. 

At times, we might’ve noted the manipulation of silence and the occupation of part-spaces. At other times, we might’ve caught the discordant caucusing in advance of one instrument prevailing. The Big Sound might’ve staggered us, the declarations of agreement that fronted and trailed synthesis. Did Lost Civilizations swing? Oh yeah, I think so. The musicians answered questions—with brassy, reedy, thumping, sawing language—in need of responses, only we had no knowledge of these questions before the performance began. We broke the surface of the evening, vastly replenished.

Rod Smith (left) and the blogger as Duo Exchange

Lost Civilizations reminds us, aptly, that counter-culture hasn’t yet suffered permanent misplacement, and that art, if untethered, represents our best avenue for salvation. Two writers had to fit together, and four musicians had to fit together, and six people had to fit together, in music and verse, and we did, fit. If you attended the show, if you listened to one or both sets, if you read this little review, thanks, and on behalf of Lost Civilizations and Duo Exchange, in the spirit of Duke Ellington, we love you M-a-a-a-dly!

Friday, October 30, 2015


People who don’t listen to music park their cars in front of fire hydrants. People who don’t listen to music develop repetitive stress disorders such as Dyspeptic Political Identity. People who don’t listen to music lament the idle swells of “steely gray clouds” dimming the north-northwest. They wander through the lobby in search of the lobby. They perch like slumbering owls, one-legged, on marble staircases. They marvel at the defunct telephone booth, the handset dangling off the hook, the dial-tone expired. People who don’t listen to music struggle at the vending machine, their currency upside down, their intended treat manacled by the tight coil of the apparatus. People who don’t listen to music suck imported, boutique plum pits. People who don’t listen to music scoff at the buttered onion! They attend registration drives in circular parks but withdraw after discovering that they won’t receive a gift, such as a four-slice toaster or a festive doilies four-pack. They gnaw on the principles of other generations even as the principles of other generations gnaw on them, “gnaw, man”, says a jokester from a jokester generation, but the wordplay carouses briefly, glancing off a plate-glass window. They monitor their carotid arteries during periods of inactivity, often with concerning results, such as mule-kick pulses or blender-on-pulse, pulses. People who don’t listen to music listen to people who don’t listen to music. They clasp their hands like “hurrahs”, only they won’t raise these “hurrahs” over their heads, and their hands, unclasping, approximate the weary countries of sequestration.

complaint week 2015 editorial schedule:
October 30: People Who Don't Listen to Music

Thursday, October 29, 2015


I’m not writing about reasonable or even borderline Manchester City Football Club supporters: they love their club, more power to them. No, I refer to The Washington, D.C. Bros, the ones who’re fond of great hand-clapping songs about Wilfried Bony, for instance, as if MCFC fully mentored the Côte d’Ivoire forward, rather than purchasing him for a whopping sum from Swansea. The same Bros make loud baby-crying noises when an opposing player has been fouled and hurt by a City player, and by this, I mean, “WAAAAAA!”, throughout the game, “WAAAAAA!”, go The MCFC Washington, D.C. Bros. If you represent a smaller club, if you venture into their lair at an establishment known as Lucky Bar in Dupont Circle, then you’ll be outnumbered by The Bros 50 to 1, you’ll be yelled at from the comfort zone of their vastly superior numerical advantage. “WAAAAAA!” go The Bros, “Wilfried Bony! Wilfried Bony!”, they sing, clapping tightly. They purchase replica English breakfast and replica beer, these Bros, they seem to hold jobs. One imagines them toiling as Financial Services Bros, or for special interest that frequently declares skeptical views of, let’s say, poverty, or perhaps on behalf of shadowy multinationals. One doesn’t imagine these Washington, D.C. Manchester City Bros giving back to the community. One doesn’t imagine them tipping, or holding a door open for someone, or self-diagnosing the clinical nature of their behavior. Still, these Bros are people, too. Who will sing for them—“WAAAAAA!”—when their bodies return to the earth? Who will sing for them when they return their sky blues to the hamper? Who will sing for them when the Bud Lite fails to vanquish the demons of the following truth: vastly wealthy foreign ownership buys titles, some of the time, but not all the time. “WAAAAAA!”

complaint week 2015 editorial schedule:
October 29: Washington, D.C. Manchester City Bros
October 30: People Who Don’tListen to Music

Wednesday, October 28, 2015


The student newspaper at George Washington University, The GW Hatchet, recently reported the layoffs of several part-time creative writing faculty members, ostensibly owing to institutional cost-cutting measures. For many years, a number of distinguished part-timers have taught at GWU, and I often regard my own time teaching in the creative writing program—mostly in a part-time capacity—as a formative period in my life. Back then, part-timers often carried teaching loads (2-2) resembling full-time loads and provided valuable departmental service that full-timers often did not provide. Noting that adjuncts probably earn a small fraction of what the full-timers take home, it does not seem like best practices—either corporate or programmatic—to eliminate these low-wage positions.

The article quotes a senior staff member as indicating that “budgetary pressures” drive the reductions among the part-time ranks. Moreover, the article quotes a full-time faculty member as saying “cuts to adjunct faculty will also make full time instructors’ jobs more difficult because they will have to take on more classes and have less time to spend one on one with students.” Both statements trouble me. In terms of cost-cutting, I have to imagine that the leadership of a wealthy, land-owning school could choose from a host of other options rather than axing a handful of part-time faculty, but appears to punish both the creative writing concentration as well as the category of people who may have to scuffle the most with our expensive world in order to teach the arts of prose and poetry. The full-time faculty member, meanwhile, conjures too much privilege among the tenure-track ranks, and misses the point. Here we see part-timers losing part of their livelihood as well as their foothold in the field. I enjoyed the response from a current part-time creative writing instructor (who loses a job) for voicing, in effect, that GWU should invest in people, and should tighten its belt, therefore, by not “[setting out] as many buffets.”

I taught more than 65 courses in the George Washington University English Department, the vast majority of them as an adjunct “professorial lecturer” earning less than $3,000 per section. A goodly gang of folks taught alongside me, in a part-time capacity. We supported each other professionally and personally, and we, as a group, often engaged in service activities—reading series management, literary magazine advising, public office hours, and so forth—that built durable community among hopeful young writers. GWU shames itself by laying off such a vital part of its creative writing program. The very same laid-off instructors are probably reflecting upon the fact that the university does not seem to care much about their plight, and hopefully, these abandoned teachers will not look back as they depart, and not do the university any favors in the future.

complaint week 2015 editorial schedule
October 28: GWU Fires Adjunct Creative Writing Faculty

Tuesday, October 27, 2015


“Let me show you my work,” they say, opening a portfolio in a storm.

It’s plenty brilliant, but it’s not like they’ve been punching the clock down at the smelter for six months.

“My work,” they continue, “attempts to trapeze the stigmata that violates the hierarchies and higher Archies Comics which serialize the tenderloin medallions of our jack-boated & peeper-jack rabbits” [sic].

They smell like every blundering variety of onion—yellow, red, white, sauteed—simultaneously.

One wishes they’d engage in ablutions, even back-alley ablutions, you know, “work” a bar of soap into a lather in order to exfoliate a few olfactory outlets.

“I try to work every day”, they add, if “to work” equates with menacing glances issued upon the skyline from the boxy confines of a dumpster-dove armchair.

The rejection of the treatise, the tilt of the beret, the ankle-height of the denim, the adjustment of the mustaches, the futility of the effort to vanquish an indefatigable booger.

“My opus is to myopia,” they say, “as my oeuvre is to my oeuf, as my opiate is to my Boeuffy the Vampire Slayer.”


The work weak, the work ethnic, the work oat.

The scene shifts to a $3.00 coffee tab.

“I call this my work Visa,” they say, producing a credit card.

It’s a miracle the transaction goes through, it’s a miracle they pick up the tabby, [sic].

It’s a miracle they merely cull the heard of hearing.

complaint week 2015 editorial schedule:
October 27: Artists and Writers Who Say “My Work”

Monday, October 26, 2015


Many of us cheered a Joe Biden entry for two purposes: healthy competition for Hillary, and if not quite good enough to topple her in the early primaries, the presence of a senior-statesman alternative should she wobble owing to prior (and perhaps future?) scandal. Nobody, to this point, rises to the level of the opposition that Biden might have offered, certainly not the regional candidate, Bernie Sanders, who conveniently calls himself a Democrat during this cycle, whose oratory probably won’t broaden the tent. Of course, we can’t blame Bernie for Bernie’s insufficiency, and in all likelihood, he probably never intended his protest candidacy to challenge Clinton as a number two hit on the national charts. No, we might blame the Democrat Machine—pronouns in use: one, she, neither, hers, few—for the odd environment that has produced a shallow pool of hapless alternatives, many of whom demonstrate little or no history as actual Democrats. (I speak of Sanders, Chafee, and Webb.) Before any of the faithful gets snotty with me, Hey, I have voted five times for Clintons, plural, and will again, except I envision the future with trepidation. While the Democrats bank on a career politician, the Grand Old Party of No—pronouns in use: several, his, whomever, he, nothing—appears capable of nominating a renegade anti-politician, with dynastic careerists like the flabby Jeb Bush twisting on a squeaky spit. Hillary projects much relish in debating a candidate like Donald Trump, but if the Democrats intend to counter a rock-star insurgent with a dynastic careerist of their own, one wonders if Biden—potentially more likeable and plenty experienced as a sitting Vice President—wouldn’t make better sense. In the end, Biden has decided to holler from the sidelines, rather than submit to the grind, which might have hacked his fundamental good nature to pieces. Democrats advance toward the primary season with a semi-controversial, lukewarm, somewhat wounded, but widely known candidate, whose own tent-broadening capability remains uncertain. A little more than a year away, the general election might feature a contest between two polarizing forces: a trash-talking (“you’re fired!”) real estate tycoon and a carefully-scripted second-timer, who’ll try to channel the best moments from her tenures as First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State. The Republicans know who they’ll face. They can change their minds yet, and the competition will intensify, especially as the establishment scrutinizes the saggy numbers for many of its darlings. We Democrats on the other hand only have one set of keys, and if we lose them, there won’t be any neighbor on whose door we can knock, just the gaseous wind of a rancid Republican winter: one that denies climate change, to boot.

complaint week 2015 editorial schedule
October 26: The Democrat Machine

Sunday, October 11, 2015


Plas shakes the world in 1958.

Perhaps the Casual Citizen has heard Plas Johnson play, even if the Casual Citizen hasn’t heard of Plas Johnson, by name. The sinuous tenor saxophone soloing that established the mischief of “The Pink Panther Theme” belongs to Plas. He contributed to other famous scores, such as “Peter Gunn” and “The Odd Couple”, backed a galaxy of elite singers and musicians, including Frank Sinatra, Nat “King” Cole, Quincy Jones, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, B.B. King, and Ray Charles, and cut a number of hot and bluesy records as a leader, but I get ahead of myself.

I discovered the great Plas single, “Downstairs”, as part of my ongoing jump blues project. Not many would consider “Downstairs” a jump, although the spacious crown of its honking inherits plenty from the bar-walkers. Plas endows the song with a brand of vigorous elegance even as he envisions a world of contours rather than a world of propriety. The slant on “filthy” applies in all the best ways. “Downstairs” becomes a destination and genesis, both, compelling the listener to effect a neat clip down stairs toward a sultry rendezvous that will confirm all the speculation.

In other words, I really dug it, but even then, I didn’t pursue a deeper understanding of Plas, or so I thought. The jump blues project drifted into other genres, some affixed to jump with more obvious lineage than others: early R&B, early rock, rockabilly, surf, garage. I began to admire numbers like Googie Rene’s “Wiggle Tail”, Rene Hall’s “Twitchy”, Duane Eddy’s “Some Kind-A Earthquake”, The Hollywood Flames’ “Buzz, Buzz, Buzz”, and Sandy Nelson’s “Let There Be Drums”, for example. According to many discography sources, Plas played all those dates.

Thus, I awoke to an expanded order in which the constellation contained many more stars than I had originally imagined. Plas recorded “Downstairs” in 1958 on Capitol, which released the tune along with the compelling “In the Loop” the following year. (Some sources suggest that “In the Loop” appeared as the A-side.) Additional Capitol tunes, including the great “Hoppin’ Mad”, may be found on vinyl, as Rockin’ with the Plas. A compilation of earlier band-leading—Bop Me Daddy, on the Tampa label, featuring “Blue Jean Shuffle”—can be found in digital format.

A fellow named Johnny Beecher—leader on “Jack Sax the City” and other New York-themed instrumentals—turns out to be Plas. You may have just heard Plas Johnson on a Benny Carter, Oliver Nelson, or Jimmy Smith record. Many people can recall the Bobby Day hit, “Rockin’ Robin”, but don’t know that Plas Johnson played that tune’s birdcall on a piccolo. We can admire the man’s many appearances as part of the Merv Griffin orchestra and forgive him, generously, for his forays with Steely Dan, Elton John, Linda Ronstadt, and The Monkees.

In terms of his playing, Plas Johnson easily belongs in the company of the greatest jump blues and R&B horn players. Listeners should revere “Downstairs” as they might revere Big Joe Houston’s “All Night Long”, J.C. Davis’ “The Splib, Part 1” (or Part 2), Herb Hardesty’s “Perdido Street”, Johnny Sparrow’s “Sparrow’s Nest”, and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis’ “Ravin’ at the Haven”, among other saxophone workouts (see comments, below). But owing to the sheer number of sessions and genres in which Plas operated, what title can I bestow upon him? He may be The Most Versatile saxophone (and piccolo) player in the history of American popular music.

Sources of information:
Bebop Wino (blog) “PlasJohnson – Rockin’ with the Plas”
Home of the Groove (blog) – “Plas Plays It Pulpy”
Wikipedia entry for Plas Johnson
In the Can online discography, November 1958
YouTube (various songs and albums, including Johnny Beecher channel)
Allmusic Guide main entry for
Plas Johnson
Plas Johnson web site
Discogs main entry for Plas Johnson
Space Age Pop entry for Plas Johnson
Taming the Saxophone entry for R&B saxophonists