The Nitty Gritty

But more than all of those I am an entertainer. I carry around a ukulele with me for the same reason a gangster carries a gun; better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it. Stage or sidewalk, Your Pal Pete shows are just where they happen.
Currently, I'm working on a musical, RagnaPOP(or she's got the bomb), set to premiere at this year's Capital Fringe Festival. I'm also working on music, comedy, and musical comedy; for kids and/or adults.
The fruit of these projects will be available on this site, so check back regularly!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Why I Let Music Destroy My Life: The Beatles

My first favorite band was the Beatles, they happen to hold that same space today. I’ve heard quite a few more bands since then and from day to day any of the other could have the space temporarily. But if I was only able to pick one band’s work to listen to on a desert island- a situation that happens more in drunken conversation than in real life- my choice would always be the Beatles.

They did so many fantastic hours of work, innovating almost accidentally with an undeniable timelessness that I still love. I have run across a couple folks who just don’t like the Beatles, and it’s always weird. These people are certainly entitled to their opinion, but it’s a little like when somebody freaks out when you let it slip that you smoke pot; you run across so few of those people that you never get used to it. These aren’t people that just haven’t realized that The Beatles did more of the songs they always have heard on the radio, but didn’t realize who did them, these are people that have weighed all the evidence and still said, “Nope, I don’t get it.” I may gasp, but I ultimately understand.

My first favorite song -that I remember at least- was “Dust In The Wind”, but thankfully the lesser works of Kansas held no similar pull. In one of the most significant musical experiences in my life, I saw Yellow Submarine on TV, broadcast to lower Delaware from one of the Philadelphia stations. The cartoons were the key to me listening to the songs, which I loved one after the other. A trip to my Grandmother’s house stopped me from seeing the rest of it, but in her basement full of my uncle and aunt’s forgotten records, I found something more valuable, The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour. Not the most acclaimed release by them, but perfect for my 9 year old self to soak into.

My parents bought me a couple more albums and they didn’t to be able write a song that I didn’t like, with the exemption of “dead dog’s eye” part of “I Am The Walrus.” Having so many aunts and uncles growing up in that era made every visit to relative’s houses meant discovering and listening to everything Beatle related in their collections. Every song I discovered was a great in a new and exciting way as they often were. I heard everything stripped of it’s context in rock history or it’s place among the other music I was familiar with at that age. The songs were what got me, although I didn’t intellectualize it that far for a VERY long time. The movements within the songs and experimental instrumental arrangements that flavored their later work were all fine and good but they still had amazing songs at the core; written by a band where even the third best songwriter -George Harrison-is still an all-time great.

I loved seeing Beatlemania through old footage with the freaking out teenage girls, sparking my own desire to make music; The desire to have girls chasing me through town in a jaunty fashion was as much of a motivation as actually making music. Having the all-time biggest band of all time as a favorite band provided me with quite the embarrassment of riches; on top of the many albums of great music, all the movies and the vivid news footage that would make their way onto our T.V. from time to time.

However, it was a different being a 9 year-old Beatles fan in 1979.
“I like that song of theirs ‘We Don’t Need No Education’,” one of my classmates said when I told him I liked the Beatles
I didn’t know who did that song yet (Pink Floyd) or what that song was really called (“Another Brick In The Wall (part 2)”) but I knew for sure it wasn’t MY Beatles. For most of my other peers, 1979 was all about Van Halen, and why not? Listening to Van Halen now makes my classmates devotion seem justified. There was no band that scratched the collective itch of American youth quite as hard as Van Halen’s first five albums. It’s a place that few bands have occupied as THE band you HAD to listen to to be accepted in certain social circles, like Led Zeppelin before them or Metallica later. If the band had broken up when David Lee Roth left, it would have been the most perfect breakup since The Beatles. But instead -for better of worse- they got Sammy Hagar; they were just different enough not be the same band. I don’t even remember if I even got to hear much Van Halen back in 4th grade, but I do remember seeing David Lee Roth’s bend backward in a hairy chested arc in the gatefold of their first album and realized that it wasn’t something I would be interested in quite yet.

We had a older music teacher named Mrs. Baxter who favored the tweed dress suits, jeweled broaches and cat-eye reading glasses that were straight outta the early fifties. She would occasionally make interjections about the changing social mores going on in the late 70’s: “I think Feminism is terrible, men don’t respect women anymore!” Sometimes it to give kid-buzz killing proclamations about the holidays we were looking forward to : “Halloween is disgraceful, it’s just organized begging.” Ouch! If we had time at the end of class, Mrs. Baxter would let us play a song from a single or an album we’d bring in from home. I was still under the mistaken assumption that all it would take would people to hear the music that I love for everyone that listened to it would love it, too. Sadly, I would hold on to this falsehood for another decade at least. I finally got the opportunity to play the Beatles song for my music class:”Help”.

I don’t remember Mrs. Baxter making any comment after any body played their selections (Queen, Bee Gees,Elvis) but she had something to say about mine.
“Completely overrated, you could easily find four students at the local high school who could sing better than them.” I was completely blown away, I still don’t understand why she saved her venom for my beloved Beatles.

I spent my teenage years stretching out a bit, INXS and Simple Minds played a big part before I got the disposable income to buy all the albums that the record guides that I won from the local radio station trivia contests told me to buy, leading to my High School obsessions with The Replacements and Husker Du.

I never had that moment of embarrassment that seems to come from so many things that I loved from back then, like “Knight Rider” and “Buck Rogers” or Frankie Goes to Hollywood, for that matter. The love songs that the Beatles wrote are still some of my favorite love songs. The rock songs they did rock me to this day, dozens of the most effortlessly brilliant pop songs ever written came out of six years of activity.

If you really want to get some idea how “Out there” they were for their time, keep in mind that the “long” hair that they had on their historic- in my opinion the most significant event in Pop music history-Ed Sullivan Show appearance made people think they looked like women, sideburns notwithstanding. Albums were seen as a way for the music buyer to re-buy singles by packaging songs from 45s and pack it with filler until the Beatles used the opportunity to use the format to create full length masterpieces. They were one of the only popular bands of the era to actually write their own songs.

You don’t have to like the Beatles for them to have affected the music you love.

By the way, I’ve never seen the Magical Mystery Tour or Sgt. Pepper movies , nor do I plan to.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Territorial Pissings

“There’s two kindsa people in this world...”, Is how the cliché goes to be followed by some insightful human dichotomy. One of the few that I can actually relate to is:” Dog people and cat person.” I myself started out as a cat person. When I was a kid cats just seemed cool. Dogs are clumsy, they can knock things over with an errant swing of the tail. But cats are graceful, even when they go from 0 to freaky in 2 seconds and HAVE TO BE IN THE NEXT ROOM RIGHT NOW!!! . I could handle their moodiness. The cats I had as a kid loved to hang out and be petted, but when they were done with you they expressed it with their claws in typically subtle cat fashion.
The tide turned around my mid 20’s. My roommate at the time had three female cats that constantly were in heat. Their human like moans outside my room crept into my subconscious as I slept that turned into dreams of a kitty conspiracy against “the bald one”: ME! They didn’t do much to make me think otherwise when I was awake,either. They became strangely silent when I walked past, and took swipes at my leg from under the couch. I stopped calling myself a “cat person”.

Dogs, on the other hand, lobbied so much harder for my affection. I became softer to their brand of unconditional love. “ You're OK by us, Pete, the occasional butt scratch is all we ask in exchange for our absolute devotion.” is what dogs seem to say to me and I started to listen. Dogs started to fascinate me, especially when I started working at the toy store. Both children and dogs need consistency in guidance, so they don’t get unruly when they get older. The child has to learn communication, but dogs know how to communicate instinctively. The growl, the bark, we relate to those because we have our own human versions of this. But the way they communicate with their bodily waste never fails to fascinate me. We wash our scent away, but it is the dog's very identity.
I don’t think I would have noticed how important this was if I hadn’t know two very alpha female dogs in my life. Casey was the terrier mutt of my ex girlfriend, Vicki. When we started dating the dog made it quite clear she dug me. She hunkered down between Vicki and I when we would try to get close. She would get amazingly dense when we’d try to pick her up out of our way. Whenever I had played with another dog before I got to Vicki’s, Casey would give me a quick whiff and a snort and I was busted. She’d spend the rest of the night glaring at me with the gaze of the betrayed. When I would take the pooch out, she would sniff out the road ahead with a intensity I’d never noticed in the other dogs I had come across. I would call this “reading the papers” because that’s how she got information that was important to the dog in the city. “The big dog next door was at this tree about an hour ago, and he recently got in the trash and ate something that didn't agree with him.”

The dynamic changed considerably when Vicki got a puppy she named Ollie. Ollie was a pitbull mutt who scared everyone that spent less than 5 seconds with him. Any fear he may have struck with his inherited tough looks were severely blunted by his ears. The left one flopped over his eye while the other one stuck straight up, making him look constantly confused. Ollie quickly grew larger than Casey, but attempt to mount her or any other show of dominance was met by furious anger.
Around the end of Vicki and my relationship, my old roommate Shawn and his dog Samantha moved in with me in Rockville. I had lived with Shawn and Sam in Salisbury before, but now I understood Sam’s behavior much better having learned from Casey. When Sam shit on my bed when we first lived together, she was establishing dominance in the house. I thought dogs stuck their heads out of the car because it was fun, because I tried it and it was. But they’re taking in all the smells that are undetectable to us scent insensitive humans.
When I’d take her out, Sam is all business. Laser focused, she lingers over evidence of another dog on the ground for a few seconds before giving a look that says, “ Oh no, that bitch didn’t !” and give her own urinary rebuttal. She’d often lift her leg up in the fashion that was more associated with male dogs to insure that every tree, sign post or whatever she could make into a musk dispersing broadcasting tower.
Every trip outdoors covered another Samantha perimeter. Either she went to the right or left of the road that went by our apartment building or around our parking lot. She would go just as far as we would take her and she often had to be pulled a couple times on her leash to turn back. The aromatic cherry on top was when we’d walk passed the entrance to our parking lot and she would stop and assumed the undeniable position of dropping doggy bombs. No one said love would be easy.

After rainstorms she’d whine until we take her outside to remark her borders. so there is nary a second of doubt to any interloping canine that this is Sammy Country.

Informally studying the role that scent plays in doggy communication didn't mean that I would use foresight to keep me safe. I horse played with Sam before we went over to our friend Rob’s house. You see, after I had moved from Salisbury, Rob took my place at the house. He had a huge male rottweiler named Lou, who was sweet but dim and humongous; when he lived at my former abode, he was Sam’s “boyfriend”.
And I smelled like her.
As we sat on Rob’s couch, Lou sat there on the edge staring at me with a gaze that equal parts lovelorn and confused. He was big enough that when we both sat we were almost eye to eye. If he was suddenly granted the ability to speak, he most assuredly would ask, “I’m really confused, but I pretty sure I want to have sex with you.” He fidgeted about as he surveyed me evenly with his eyes, like maybe I was hiding his girlfriend in my jacket.

I remember watching Sam asserting her alpha bitch status to Lou when we would go over to where he and Rob lived. He was playing with a huge stick, until Sam decided to have it. She just went up to him and threw a little aggressive growling and it was hers. Never mind that the branch was too big for her to play with, that wasn’t the point, it was about the alpha bitch asserting her dominance. When she lost whatever meager desire for the huge stick, Lou would try to get it back, only to have Sam snap him away.

So here was me in his master’s basement, scented to inflame his instinctual desire, with none of the establishment of dominance that was Sam’s forte to keep him in check; I was defenseless. I came back from a trip to the backyard to be met in the hallway on the other side of the door by a Lou that was done being polite, he wanted booty, he literally wanted me to be his bitch. His massive body was blocking the hallway, making sure I couldn’t make my way back to Shawn and Rob. He growled that playtime was over then he put his front paws up on my shoulders pinning me up against the back door.
“ ROB! your dog is trying to rape me!”

I realized that Sam was starting to get older when a bulldog moved into one of the other apartments; other dogs had come and go, but this was different. I’d take her out by the bulldog’s building and her nose would catch what was certainly another dog’s piss and she’d shudder like she didn’t like it, but she just walked away instead of squatting it away. She had finally met her match.

For the rest of the time I lived with them, Sam gave up her territory except for the lawn in front of the interloper’s building in an passive-aggressive attempt to usurp the territory of the bulldog. That’s the funny thing, this was a war fought purely with smells; I made sure that I never took her out when the other dog was out, so she never got muzzle to muzzle with him. I wasn’t stupid, Sam with the sweetest dog possible with other humans, but with other dogs, she was a real bitch.

Monday, October 22, 2007

My Secret Catholic Life

My maternal Grandmother suffered from Dementia. One of the common symptoms of this disease is the sufferer sometimes reacts as if they are living in different eras of their life from one moment to the next. This was especially poignant when she would ask me, “Who are you?” when I visited her after she suffered a heart attack. How could I explain to her that I was her son Tom’s son when she thought she was living in a reality where she hadn’t even gotten married, much less had my father; the fourth kid out of seven.

One of the unexpected byproducts of her mental state was the unearthing of a secret from when I was born: while she baby-sat me, she had me baptized in the Catholic church without my parent’s permission. My parents had resisted my relatives attempts to indoctrinate me to religion, with Bible comic books and babysitting gigs filled with stories from scripture. But we didn't find out about this until I was almost 30.

It wasn’t at all like when I found out I had ADHD, where the separate clues in my life suddenly bound together as one reality. There was no, “Ah, HA!” moment with Catholicism, I spent many a Catholic Mass or ceremony lost in the choreography of the Lord’s Prayer and Hail Marys.
“And also with you.” Missed that one too! That came out of nowhere, why couldn’t I remember to say that when the priest said, “Peace be with you?” I was always the last person to stand up and sit down. I looked around and everyone else is lock step like they had rehearsed it, and I guess they did, every Sunday.

That’s the problem that I have with the Catholic Church- the Church, not Catholics personally- they’re so caught up in ceremony and seeming virtuous that they’ve lost sight of the fact that they have lost their moral authority. You could site examples of the questionable behavior that the Catholic Church was both active in(the Inquisition) and more passive (the Holocaust). Even discounting those historical examples, the Priest sex abuse scandals and the network of denial that kept them going as long as they could is more than enough to lose the needle on the moral compass. From my own perspective, the only people surprised by the Catholic priest scandal were non-Catholics and Catholics in blinding denial. But now there is no denying what had been going on; if my grandmother hadn’t died, this surely would have killed her.

I think that child abuse is one of the most dangerous and damaging things ever. It’s almost like the Amway of crimes; Robbery victims don’t typically start robbing people afterward, but children that are sexually abused often go on to abuse many other children, and so on.

I think the sin of the Catholic Church is pride; I guess that’s to be expected when Jesus starts your church. Dogma allows the Catholic Church to change and update sins and getting rid of Limbo altogether. They can always hold the afterlife over us because they’re much better at the great unknown than the great known. They only have us by our faith, and that is often more than enough.

Of course I can say all of this, I am Catholic after all. That’s the benefit of my Grandmom’s clandestine water-splashing, which I’ve never held it against her, by the way. Because of this one ritual, according to Catholic Dogma I’ll eventually land in Heaven; after a long detour in Purgatory, I’m sure.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Madonna-Indie Rocker?:How The Music Industry Screwed Itself

It was big news (to me)that Madonna recently dropped her record company in favor of a promotion company following similar moves by Nine Inch Nails and Oasis. I admit that all three have past their commercial peak long ago, but Radiohead still has a sizable loyal following and has gone around their record company to offer their record online for a price of the downloaders choosing. It's a interesting experiment, and it's likely to have one result: they'll make more money doing it like this than if they released it through their record company. In fact, if someone pays more than $1.50 for it, Radiohead makes more than if you paid full price at your local retailer. Maybe.

I realize that calling Madonna an indie rocker is similar to calling George Lucas an indie filmmaker; true in definition, if not in spirit.

In a system first developed to take advantage of musicians eager for stardom at the dawn of the rock and roll era, artists are responsible for paying back all costs involved with the recording and promotion of an album to their record company before they make a cent, everything down to the gold records. Some of the most biggest artists make make all their money from touring and merchandise, those expensive videos take their toll.

With all of the old school major labels getting stuck together into unwieldy monsters, highlighting to problems that occur when art meets the bottom line. Old school majors certainly had their problems, but it was more a game of blackjack; you win some, you lose some, but overall hopefully you'll come out ahead. Now it's more like playing slots; they throw money that they made from the last flash-in-the-pan to find the next one. Even if -as an artist- you get some glimmer of success, the slightest downturn in your popularity will leave you persona non grata at your label, and damaged goods to any other label.
It's telling that major labels are requiring new artists to give them a piece of their touring and merchandise money too.
Then came the internet and downloading;it takes away one of the biggest advantages being on a major label, distribution. Downloading democratizes distribution so that even someone who records music in his bedroom (me, for example) can use the same channels as the biggest multi-national conglomerate to get their music out into the world.

What else could the majors offer, promotion? Tons of indie artists, like Arcade Fire, The Shins or The New Pornographers make appearances on TV shows that used to be the domain of major label artists.

Someone once said, "The future belongs to those who see it coming" and clearly the major labels didn't. They tried to stop an unstoppable technology;regardless of what ever copy protection they use, someone could just plug their CD player in to the audio jack of their computer to create mp3s. It's what I refer to as "the Pandora effect": when something as revolutionary as downloading pops out of the box, it does no use trying to fight it directly, you adjust or die.

I remember something that was printed on a lot of records and tapes in the Eighties, "Home Taping is killing music" that wasn't true then, and the whining about downloading killing it is wrong too. Music can't die but poorly run companies drunk on their own ego can.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Brand New Music Fun Facts

What do The Velvet Underground and The Grateful Dead have in common? The both went by the name The Warlocks early in their careers.

What do ELO and Black Sabbath have in common? Drummer Bev Bevan, who played on almost all of ELO’s hits but none of Sabbath’s.

What do Vanilla Ice and Swanssinger Michael Gira have in common? They both dated Madonna, if Thurston Moore is to be believed. This is The Swans BTW

What do Thin Lizzy, 80’s new wavers Ultravox and Band Aid have in common? Guitarist Midge Ure, who was briefly in a late-period Lizzy and co-wrote “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”

What do Spinal Tap and The Left Banke(“Walk Away Renee”) have in common? Guitarist Michael McKean who joined the back after they had their hits.

What do Pearl Jam, 10cc and The Lovin Spoonful have in common? Their names were all inspired by semen. Pearl Jam had come up with some differing stories about their name, but honestly, do they strike you as guys that would admit that they’re named after jizz?

Monday, October 01, 2007

Why I Let Music Destroy My Life: The Lonnie Years

When I started playing music, it was on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Delaware. In DC, if you go to see a show, depending on the venue, the band is going to play original music. On the Eastern Shore it was assumed that you played covers, where a band might let a few "originals" slip in, bring them closer to being a real band.

Thinking that you had to have three sets of your own songs to be a true original band(mainly because every original band I knew had that many songs) it felt like a milestone I would never reach with my current output of songs, which was about 2 or 3 a year.

Once I realized that most bands weren't required to have more than 45 minutes. I had put together a band with friends from bands around Salisbury: Dale played drums, I had played with him in my last band,Actionman. Joe played bass, he was the only other person to stay in the band until we broke up. Lonnie Bruner played guitar, he was the only one that I wasn't sure of musically, but I was sure of personally. I gave him a rough recording of some of my new songs and when we got together to practice them, I immediately realized that Lonnie was truly musically talented and added the simplest suggestion or arranging idea and it made everything sound better than it did in my head when I wrote the song.

We hit the ground running, playing an open mike show in Rehoboth Beach after less than a week. Our saving grace musically was our rhythm section, Dale and Joe provided an ultra steady backbeat to Lonnie and my increasingly noisy guitar shenanagans. I was playing guitar in a band for the first time, having just playing bass before, I was going to make up for the noise I wasn't able to make before.

Lonnie and I quickly adopted a policy to play as many shows possible shows with what we referred to as "The Cinderella Factor", from a article I had read about when Jon Bon Jovi discovered hair-metalists Cinderella. Jon signed them because he saw them in front of 20 people, but they played like they were playing for 20,000.

Don't get it twisted, we weren't fans of Cinderella and we certainly didn't think that Jon Bon Jovi was going to pluck us out of our ennui if we did our rock star raindances at our shows, we just knew that going fuckin-a bonkers as we played was funner than not doing it. Some of our most fun chaotic shows were in front our smallest crowds. Lonnie embodied the kind of foolishness and enthusiasm that I had always loved about playing rock and roll.

One guy took me aside and said,"Your guitar player looks a little silly jumping around when there wasn't that many people around." That was true, but I loved it and wouldn't have it any other way. The most interesting thing about that set he was talking about was Lonnie interacting with the four people who were completely into us and danced while everyone else lined the walls of the bar. Things got so out of hand that all our new fans were kicked out by the middle of the set.

This actually proved to bite us on our rock and roll asses on occasion. The night before we played one of our biggest shows at a college festival, we played a last minute show that concluded with Lonnie and I scrapping our guitars against our feedbacking amps. It's a ritual whose sheer joy can't be explained, it only be experienced first hand.

We cleaned up afterward and Lonnie noticed that rowdiness led him to lose one of his guitar's tuners. He took one off his banjo and just hope it held. The next day when we played, Lonnie's guitar cut out in the middle of the first song. When I looked at him in between singing, I saw him take his guitar off and slam it as hard as he could onto the festival's temporary stage. I understood his frustration, but it make it a bit difficult to get someone to lend us a guitar so we could play. Someone did take pity and we limped through the rest of our set.

A guy threatened to fine us one because Lonnie scraped his guitar along the entire dance floor guard rail in lieu of an actual guitar solo.

He got a couple of nicknames for his flexible, gangly acrobatics, "The Cricket", "the Rubber Man". When we'd play and I'd lose sight of him in my peripheral vision and knew it shortly before take-off and Lonnie would hurl himself onto whatever empty surface was in front of our stage and writhe around like a guitar playing, well cricket, actually.

Like all good things, it wasn't to last. Other interests led Lonnie to other things besides music, although we are obviously still friends.

The most vivid memory I have about my playing days with Lonnie was a show we had at Phantasmagoria in Wheaton, Maryland. During one of his solos, I took of my guitar and put it around Lonnie's neck right on top of his guitar. He started playing the solo on my guitar as I reached around him and played a one handed version of my part on his guitar until a drums and bass breakdown in the song gives us an opportunity to put our own guitar back on and indluge in a little feedback before playing the rest of the song.
It wasn't planned or talked about at all before. It was just a spontaneous part of our show that we never did it before and never did it again.
Us and the 2 dozen or so members of the audience already saw it, why do we need to do it again?