Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Socks, companion of the Clinton family during their years in the White House, passed away Friday at age 19.

Socks came into the Clintons' lives when he jumped into the arms of Chelsea Clinton as she was leaving her piano teacher's house in 1991. Although Bill and Hillary were not enthusiastic about having a cat for a pet at first, Chelsea became attatched to Socks, and her parents agreed to let her keep him. The next year Socks made the trip from Little Rock to Washington to become the eighth feline occupant of the White House.

Although Socks made an appearance or two in the White House briefing room, all accounts seem to indicate that Socks led a leisurely life during his Washington years. He received a good deal of fan mail during President Clinton's time in office, though he had little interest in it. He spent a good deal of time on a blue-striped chair next to the desk of Clinton's secretary Betty Currie, with whom he developed a special bond.

In 1997, the Clintons acquired a Labrador retriever, Buddy, which did not sit well with Socks. The two never saw eye-to-eye; President Clinton said, "I did better with ... the Palestinians and the Israelis than I've done with Socks and Buddy."

When the Clintons left the White House in 2001, they left Socks in the care of Betty Currie and her husband. Socks spent his retirement years with the Curries, eating lots of home cooking. His favorite meal was chicken. In December 2008, Socks was found to have cancer of the jaw, and was euthanized in a Hollywood, Maryland veterinary hospital on February 20.

The Clinton family released the following statement: "Socks brought much happiness to Chelsea and us over the years, and enjoyment to kids and cat lovers everywhere. We're grateful for those memories, and we especially want to thank our good friend, Betty Currie, for taking such loving care of Socks for so many years."

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Drive my car

Inspired by a comment at Digby's. I was thinking of posting something else this weekend, but that would have required me to do some actual writing. Be careful what you wish for.

If you're having trouble making up your mind, this clip may help.

Also, "Who'd Run The Best Daycare", the US News And World Report blurb that started it all.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Album project: Badass B's

Long John Baldry, It Ain't Easy (1971): British blues vocalist Long John Baldry is probably best remembered for the many classic rockers he worked with and mentored than for his own musical accomplishments.

Standing 6'7", with a rich voice well-suited for blues, Baldry was an imposing figure on stage. His first notable gig was as lead vocalist of Alexis Koerner's Blues Incorporated, a pioneering London blues group of the early 60's. Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, and Jack Bruce were also members of the group, while Keith Richards and Brian Jones sat in from time to time. From there, Baldry went on to sing for Cyril Davies' R&B All-Stars, featuring Jimmy Page on guitar. After Davies' death, Baldry took over leadership of the outfit as their name changed to The Hoochie Coochie Men, and then Steampacket.

Steampacket was something of an experimental group featuring three lead vocalists; the other singers were Rod Stewart and Julie Driscoll. After Steampacket's demise, Driscoll and the group's keyboardist Brian Auger would have a major British hit with their version of The Band's "This Wheel's On Fire", and Stewart would go on to become a legend. Baldry would form another blues outfit, Bluesology, featuring an eccentric pianist named Reg Dwight. Borrowing the first names of the lead singer and sax player, this piano player would go on to fame and fortune as Elton John.

Although respected as one of Britain's best blues singers, Baldry's music wasn't getting the bills paid, so in 1967 he took a stab at singing pop ballads. The move paid off at first - his "Let The Heartaches Begin" spent two weeks atop the UK charts, and "Mexico" was used by the BBC as the theme song to their coverage of the 1968 Olympics. By the end of 1969, though, the hits had dried up, and Baldry had lost much of his credibility in British rock and blues circles. To salvage his reputation, Baldry turned to his old colleagues Rod Stewart and Elton John to produce an album for him; the result was It Ain't Easy.

The LP's highlight is the lead track, the rollicking "Don't Try To Lay No Boogie-Woogie On The King Of Rock 'N' Roll". Baldry introduces the track with a lengthy, hilarious tall tale about busking on the streets of London in the late 50's, then the music kicks in, boogieing with a vengeance, in spite of the title. Other notable tracks include covers of traditional blues by Leadbelly and Muddy Waters, and the title song, also recorded by David Bowie.

After recording a followup, Everybody Stops For Tea, Baldry spent some years battling mental illness, spending some time in an institution. Released in 1978, he settled in Vancouver and recorded the comeback LP Baldry's Out! His career took another strange twist in 1980 when his version of "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' ", recorded with Kathi McDonald, rose to #2 in Australia. That would prove to be Baldry's last musical success. He spent his later years providing voiceovers for a number of animated features, including Conan The Adventurer and Adventures of Sonic The Hedgehog. Baldry passed away in 2005 at age 64.

Hank Ballard And The Midnighters, 20 Hits (1977): A notable figure in the transition of hard, guitar-based R&B to rock 'n' roll, Hank Ballard was born John Henry Kendricks in Bessemer, Alabama, in 1936. As a boy, Ballard was sent to live with relatives in Detroit, where he sang in his church choir. Years later, though, Ballard cited Gene Autry as his chief musical inspiration while growing up.

In 1951, Ballard was discovered by R&B singer/impresario Johnny Otis, and invited to sing with a group called The Royals. Changing their name to The Midnighters to avoid confusion with The "5" Royales, the group recorded "Get It", featuring their early hallmarks - risque lyrics, and the blaring, fuzz-toned guitar of Alonzo Tucker. "Get It" made the R&B Top 10, setting the stage for the "Annie" records that gave the group their early notoriety.

Recorded in early 1954, "Work With Me Annie" caused an immediate furor with its explicit lyrics ("Annie please don't cheat / Give me all my meat") that caused the song to be banned by radio stations from coast to coast. Despite the bans, "Work With Me Annie" was a #1 R&B hit, and also crossed over to the pop charts. Capitalizing on their success, The Midnighters continued with a string of records featuring Annie - "Sexy Ways", "Annie Had A Baby", and so on. The song also led to a slew of answer records. Etta James' "Roll With Me Henry" was the most famous, later cleaned up for white audiences by Georgia Gibbs as "Dance With Me Henry".

By 1956, the Annie gimmick had run its course, and Ballard spent the next three years without hits. But by the end of the decade, he had re-invented himself as a singer of light, R&B-influenced dance tunes. 1960 would be his most successful year on the pop charts, scoring with a pair of Top 10 hits, "Finger Poppin' Time" and "Let's Go, Let's Go, Let's Go". Also in 1960, one of his songs from the lean years would resurface and become his best-known composition. "The Twist" had languished for over two years as an obscure B-side until American Bandstand titan Dick Clark recommended the song to Cameo Records owner Bernie Lowe as perfect for launching the career of a singer Lowe had just signed. Chubby Checker's recording of "The Twist" became a monster, and the renewed popularity sent Ballard's original version into the charts as well.

Ballard would continue for a couple of more years as a dance innovator, with such hits as "The Hoochie Coochie Coo", "The Continental Walk", and "The Switch-A-Roo". All of the above singles are included on the 20 Hits compilation. But as the early 60's dance craze subsided, Ballard would drift back into obscurity. He attempted several comebacks through the rest of the 60's and 70's, including one sponsored by James Brown, but would have no more chart hits. Eventually, he would find some success on the oldies show circuit, particularly in the UK and Europe. Ballard was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1990, and passed away in 2003.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Albums that changed your life

Our friend John Pazdan has today's homework assignment. This is apparently a Facebook meme that's making the rounds.

Think of 15 albums that had such a profound effect on you they changed your life or the way you looked at it. They sucked you in and took you over for days, weeks, months, years. These are the albums that you can use to identify time, places, people, emotions. These are the albums that no matter what they were thought of musically shaped your world.

John adds that you are to do it fast; basically, the first 15 albums that come to mind. I thought that there was no way to come up with 15, but I started to write down a list at work last night and within ten minutes wound up with over 30. I brought the list home, and there's no way I can get it under 25. So I'm cheating a bit by not listing the first 15 that came to mind, and by editing my selections. Yet the albums listed all made an impact on me, either by defining the boundaries of my tastes when I was growing up, or by blowing a hole in them as I got a little older.

Aerosmith, Toys In The Attic
Beatles, Rubber Soul
Beatles, Abbey Road
Clash, Sandinista!
Cream, Disraeli Gears
Derek & The Dominoes, Layla And Other Love Songs
Bob Dylan, Blood On The Tracks
Jimi Hendrix, Are You Experienced?
Robert Johnson, King Of The Delta Blues Singers
Kansas, Leftoverture
King Crimson, In The Court Of The Crimson King
Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin II
Lynyrd Skynyrd, Second Helping
Bob Marley & The Wailers, Rastaman Vibration
Elvis Presley, The Sun Sessions
Ramones, Ramones
REM, Murmur
Bob Seger, Live Bullet
Sex Pistols, Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols
Bruce Springsteen, Born To Run
Steely Dan, Can't Buy A Thrill
Styx, Equinox
U2, Boy
Who, Who's Next
Neil Young, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere

If you just go for it, you'll be surprised how quickly you come up with 15. Leave 'em in the comment box.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Valentine's Day

Happy Valentine's Day to everybody reading, and their sweeties. Even if you don't have a sweetie, here's hoping that you find time today to enjoy life for a while.

I don't use this blog to talk much about myself, but seeing that this is a day to celebrate intimate feelings, I hope you'll indulge me for a bit.

I wasn't figuring to be looking for love at this point in my life. Although it wasn't obvious to either of us at first, Peggy and I found ourselves to be a perfect match for each other, and once we decided to marry, we were committed to growing together and spending the rest of our lives together. Much of the next 22 years turned out to be difficult - Peggy was always struggling with her health, we were barely surviving financially; those things often stretched our marriage almost to the breaking point. Yet those are the things you learn from, and each trial ultimately made our love stronger. Then, just as it seemed we had finally found a place of stability, Peggy passed away.

To be honest, I was expecting to remain single for a long time thereafter. For one thing, I don't mind keeping my own company. My days of hanging out in bars are long over. In addition, my schedule doesn't provide many chances to get out. I don't see my real-life friends all that much. When I'm awake, they're asleep; when I have a day off, they're working. You get the picture.

A good deal of my socialization comes from being online, and the many great friendships I've established due to this blog. Online romances, though, were something I was admittedly skeptical of. There's nothing inherently bad about them - I know a few of you have had good experiences in that area, and I know of at least one couple who married not long ago whose relationship began online. I also know that some of you are at the opposite end of the spectrum and strictly want to find romance the old-fashioned way. Whatever works for you is fine. I just didn't see it as anything I'd be interested in myself.

A few weeks before Christmas, one of my regular female readers who happened to be single began e-mailing me. Likewise, I'd been reading her blog for a while; she has a style that's unique, to say the least, and I came away from there almost every day with a laugh or smile. I think that at first she was just trying to be nice; she knew I was having a tough time with the holidays and just wanted me to know that she was there if I needed someone to talk to. We began exchanging e-mails, and within a few weeks started with the phone calls as well, and soon I knew I wanted to meet this woman in person. We live in adjacent states, so the logistics weren't that hard to work out. As we talked, I found myself more comfortable with her than I have been with anybody I have met in ages. Not only can she make me laugh, she's a good listener, she's intelligent, and we found ourselves sharing many of the same outlooks on life. She's a caring person, a good mother to her children. She's gone back to college to provide a better life for her and her daughters. Through our conversations, I found myself becoming attracted to her, and was surprised when she told me she had similar feelings for me.

As I said, I had no plans to use this blog as the means to find my next serious relationship. But I can't help but feel that I can be good for this woman, and she feels the same towards me. Although we have yet to actually meet each other, we both know we have found something special, something that can only get better with time. We've made plans to meet at Dollywood in April. It's not been the easiest decision for either of us to make, given how our relationship started, but we've decided to just go with our feelings and see where they take us. As for me, I really feel like a new day has begun.

Happy Valentine's Day, Jenn.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


I'm stealin' this from Tiff, who picked it up from The West Virginia Surf Report. I don't visit the WVSR often enough, but I always get a good laugh or several whenever I do.

Today's assignment is very simple. Those who choose to participate, simply tell me where you live. Then describe your town in one word.

For example: Pole Hill is located in Goodlettsville, Tennessee. Hilly.

Although I still like my two-word description of the place, "redneck suburbia".

Your turn.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Third annual Grammy gripe thread

It's a Pole Hill tradition. It's Grammy night, which means this is the night that you get an open thread to gripe about the sorry state of current popular music. Or tell me that you never watch those damned awards shows, then proceed to describe Beyonce's dress down to the last sequin. Undoubtedly, someone will show up and announce that they think Amy Winehouse is subhuman. Myself, I think the Jonas Brothers are goofy bastards, but they'll probably win Best New Artist in a walk.

Every so often the Grammy committee, like the proverbial blind squirrel, finds an acorn. This year they at least had the good sense to nominate Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' Raising Sand for Album Of The Year and their "Please Read The Letter" for Record Of The Year. They probably won't win (Coldplay was also nominated in both categories) but at least there's some evidence that they actually listen once in a while instead of copying names out of People magazine. Buy this album.


Dewey Martin, Buffalo Springfield drummer, has passed away at age 68. A steady, unspectacular timekeeper, Martin and bassist Bruce Palmer provided the rhythmic foundation for the groundbreaking compositions of Stephen Stills, Neil Young, and Richie Furay that made the Springfield one of the 60's most influential groups. After the band broke up in 1968, Martin tried to carry on with a group called the New Buffalo Springfield, but Stills and Young successfully sued to keep Martin from using the name. He formed the short-lived Medicine Ball in the early 70's; after that, he faded into obscurity.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

February 3, 1959

I should have written this up a couple of days ago, but the plane crash that took the lives of 50's rock icons Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper never has held that much significance to me. However, it was one of rock's first great tragedies, and a day of infamy for first-generation rockers, so I feel the need to write a little something on it as its 50th anniversary passes.

Buddy Holly was indeed one of the first generation's most creative figures, in addition to being one of its biggest-selling artists. Hits like "That'll Be The Day", "Peggy Sue", "Oh Boy" and others explored the common themes of teen love, yet many featured a musical and lyrical complexity unusual for the time. He was an accomplished lead and rhythm guitarist, yet he also displayed a lighter touch that suggested alternatives to the all-out Sun Records rockabilly approach. He was a major inspiration to the British Invasion artists; The Beatles chose their name partly as tribute to Holly's Crickets.

Ritchie Valens was a case of what might have been. A charismatic Californian of Mexican descent, the 17-year-old Valens had recently broken through with his first major hit, the double-sided "Donna"/"La Bamba". "Donna" was a traditional teen ballad, but the flip side, "La Bamba", was a fiery rocker years ahead of its time. Fiercely proud of his heritage, Valens was initially reluctant to record his souped-up version of the Mexican folk song. J. P. Richardson, known as The Big Bopper, was a one-trick pony and he knew it. The Texas disc jockey was milking his novelty hit "Chantilly Lace" for all it was worth, living life to the fullest while it lasted.

The details of that fateful night are an inescapable part of rock lore. The three artists, along with Dion And The Belmonts, were touring as the "Winter Dance Party", making their way through the Midwest, and on February 2, made a stop at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. They were traveling on a tour bus with a malfunctioning heater. Holly, tired of freezing and needing some extra time to do laundry, chartered a four-seater Beechcraft Bonanza to take him to the tour's next stop in Moorhead, Minnesota. J. P. Richardson had come down with the flu; Waylon Jennings, one of Holly's band members, let The Big Bopper have his seat. Ritchie Valens was eager for a ride on the plane; Holly's other band member Tommy Allsup agreed to a coin flip for the last seat. Valens won. When Holly learned Jennings wasn't going to make the flight, he cracked to Waylon, "I hope your ol' bus freezes up!" Jennings shot back, "And I hope your ol' plane crashes!", words that would haunt him for the rest of his life. The plane took off from nearby Mason City Municipal Airport, but crashed into a snowy cornfield five miles away, killing all three passengers plus pilot Roger Peterson. Investigators found that the 21-year-old Peterson was not rated for nighttime flight, and probably lost his sense of direction due to the darkness and his inexperience at reading the plane's instruments. The Des Moines Register published an excellent article with further details and reminiscence of that fateful day.

In his 1971 hit "American Pie", Don McLean called it "the day the music died", but that's going way too far, as artists like The Beach Boys, Roy Orbison, Del Shannon and Gene Pitney would soon break through to usher in a period of music better than many give it credit for, and Bob Dylan and the British Invasion were just around the corner. "American Pie", though deceptively catchy, is actually an eight-minute long rant against the 60's, singling out Dylan, John Lennon, and Mick Jagger for special vitriol. Then, just as you've heard way too much hyperbole, the song winds down by drawing a parallel between Holly, Valens, Richardson, and the Holy Trinity. I liked the song when I was a kid, but today I'd easily put "American Pie" on a list of the worst songs of all time.

(H/T to Brian Holland for the Register article.)

Monday, February 02, 2009

Billy Powell

Billy Powell, Lynyrd Skynyrd pianist and one of the last surviving members of the original group, passed away Thursday at age 56. Powell had a history of heart problems and was planning to see his heart specialist in the upcoming week, but never made it.

Powell, a school friend of Skynyrd bassist Leon Wilkeson, originally was a roadie for the group. One day, the band was rehearsing before a gig at a high school prom when Powell sat down at the piano and played an elaborate introduction to their future anthem "Free Bird". Bandleader Ronnie Van Zant was so impressed he offered Powell a job on the spot. Powell's bluesy, boogieing piano style helped lay the foundation for Skynyrd's vaunted triple-guitar attack. In addition to "Free Bird", some of Powell's other classic moments are his solos on "Call Me The Breeze" and "T For Texas".

Powell was severly injured in the 1977 plane crash that took the lives of Van Zant and guitarist Steve Gaines. He almost had his nose knocked off, and suffered a number of facial lacerations. After the crash, he became a born-again Christian and spent time in a Christian rock band, Vision. He joined the reformed Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1987 and carried on for the rest of his career in helping keep the band's legacy alive.

Country music founding father Jimmie Rodgers wrote and recorded "T For Texas" as "Blue Yodel #1" in 1928. It became a sizable national hit, a rarity in those times when the popularity of country music was confined mostly to the South. Lynyrd Skynyrd's rocking version is far different from the original, as one might expect. Here, Powell's piano solo provides the exclamation point to some hot guitar interplay between Allen Collins and Steve Gaines. Sit back and get into this music, as I have no idea what the people filming this clip were thinking. Like damn near everyone else in 1976, they were probably stoned out of their heads.