Saturday, April 02, 2011


OK, I bit the bullet and opened a Facebook account. Jenn sez "Welcome to the 21st Century!" Myself, it feels more like the decline and fall...

Anyway, Pole Hill folks are welcome to come on over.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

End of the road

A sad day in Chicago, 1974.

This post is a long time in coming, although I'm sure most of you suspected something like this was bound to happen. Simply put, Pole Hill Sanitarium, in its current form, has ceased to exist.

The problem, as it pertains to this site, is that this page is no longer viable for my blogging uses, at least not without putting a lot of work into it that I have neither the time nor the inclination for. Pole Hill's template is still one of the old Blogger types that has none of the improvements of later versions. I have to put everything into the template manually, which is a pain in the ass that I no longer have the desire to deal with. Also, none of the additions I made to make life easier function any more. The blogroll disappeared when BlogRolling went out of existence in November. Then, Echo jacked up their rates at the end of last year, and I didn't pay my bill. I'm surprised that the old comments are still visible. But I can no longer log in to manage the comment section, so you can come in and spam all over the comments all you want, and there's nothing I can do about it except to remove the code from my template, and with it all the old comments too.

There are other factors involved as well. The golden age of blogging is definitely over. Nearly all the amateur bloggers have left for Facebook or other social networking platforms that are less labor-intensive and provide access to a larger audience than a traditional blog can. Most of the blogs left that are worth reading are either groupblogs and/or written by people who are paid to write. The professional blogosphere has devolved into a myriad of echo chambers whose general rule is to agree with the host or get your ass banned, or at least get mercilessly flamed by the comment section regulars. You can still learn some useful things from reading the blogs, but good luck finding any intelligent discussion of them. It never ceases to amaze me that no matter how much communications technology continues to evolve, people insist on reverting to their same old patterns. My last few months of regular blogging were disappointing more than anything; more often than not I just felt as though I was pissing into the wind.

Having said that, there are still things I would like to work on. The Album Project has been left hanging - in the middle of The Beatles' career, no less. I'd also like to have a platform for those rare occasions when I feel like writing on current events. At this point I'm weighing my options on that; most likely at some point a new blog will pop up in some form or other. I don't plan to take the archives here down any time soon, and I'll post over here when the new place is up and running. I'm also considering a Facebook page, despite my many reservations, privacy concerns, and the numerous assholes that infest that place. I've made a number of friends over here who these days are mainly active on Facebook, and I'd like to keep in touch with them, as well as using Facebook for things that don't require a more involved blog post. Again, I'll keep you posted.

I will miss this old place. We've had a lot of good times and good discussion here over the last five years. I've met a lot of good folks through this blog who I would like to stay in contact with. Without this blog I would have never met Jenn and her kids, Amanda and Lucy, with whom I've started a new chapter of life that I'm happy in. Thanks to all of you, one last time, for making Pole Hill Sanitarium far more interesting and successful than I dreamed it would be when I started out, figuring that the words here would be seen by no one but myself.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Solomon Burke

Legendary soul and R&B vocalist Solomon Burke passed away Sunday at age 70, while en route to a performance in Amsterdam.

Burke was born in Philadelphia in 1940, in a room over a church founded by his grandmother; allegedly, she had foreseen Burke's birth in a dream. The church would be a key influence throughout his career. The day he was born, he was ordained a bishop, and by age 7 he was preaching sermons. At age 12 he had a radio ministry on Philadelphia station WHAT, and in his teens Burke made his first gospel recordings. He toured the East Coast as a gospel performer, but the crooked dealings that were standard practice in the music industry in the 50's soured him from becoming a full-time professional, and he returned to Philadelphia to study embalming.

Jerry Wexler and Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records noted Burke's gospel recordings, though, and in 1960 invited the singer to New York to cut some R&B sides. According to Burke, Wexler was frustrated by his insistence that he was not a R&B singer, and his penchant for sermonizing while singing. Wexler hit upon the idea of giving Burke country-and-western songs to sing - a novel idea for a black artist in 1960 - yet became irritated as Burke brought his preaching style to the C&W material as well. Eventually, Ahmet Ertegun basically told Wexler to leave the young vocalist alone to do his thing. From those sessions, "Just Out Of Reach (Of My Two Open Arms)", which had been a hit for Patsy Cline, became Solomon Burke's first R&B hit.

Burke would continue to work with Wexler and Bert Berns through most of the 60's, and they would produce a substantial run of hits. He had a rich voice that could give a warm and tender flavor to ballads, and an impeccable sense of swing that propelled up-tempo numbers like "Everybody Needs Somebody To Love" and "Got To Get You Off My Mind", two of his biggest hits. Burke's recordings continued to retain the flavor of the church, and the sermons that had frustrated Wexler turned into lengthy intros to his songs. A large, imposing man, Burke dominated the stage with his presence, and was dubbed "King Solomon" by his fans. He played his regal persona to the hilt, arriving on stage in velvet robes, a scepter, and a crown, preceded by midgets who scattered rose petals across the stage. Burke's charisma and talent made him one of the 60's most popular soul performers. He was not as well known with white audiences, although The Rolling Stones covered "Cry To Me" and "Everybody Needs Somebody To Love" during their early days. Top 40 programmers likely thought that Burke's music carried too many traces of gospel for AM radio consumption; his biggest pop hit, "Got To Get You Off My Mind", only reached #22 in the Billboard charts.

Burke left Atlantic in 1968 to record for a series of smaller labels, and although continuing to be an active performer on the R&B circuit, his star slowly faded as the 70's progressed. He also kept busy in a number of other activities, maintaining his presence in the ministry and owning a Los Angeles funeral parlor. His music's legacy would spread to Hollywood in the 80's - "Everybody Needs Somebody To Love" was featured in The Blues Brothers, and Patrick Swayze sang "Cry To Me" in a scene of Dirty Dancing.

During the last decade, Burke enjoyed a musical comeback. He was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 2001, and the next year won his only Grammy for his album Don't Give Up On Me. He maintained an active touring schedule, and his performances were as grandiose as ever. With his weight having ballooned to 500 pounds, Burke now sang while seated in a throne. In 2006, he returned to country music with Nashville, featuring performances with Emmylou Harris, Dolly Parton, Patty Griffin, Gillian Welch and Patty Loveless. Remaining active to the end, he was on his way to The Netherlands for a show with De Dijk when he passed away. Solomon Burke is survived by 21 children and 90 grandchildren.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Farm Aid at 25

Bob Dylan and Tom Petty at the first Farm Aid concert.

Farm Aid officially turns 25 this weekend, with this year's show held in Milwaukee. Founders Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp and Neil Young once again head up an all-star lineup helping to raise money for American farmers. I was there for that first show, held September 22, 1985 in Champaign, Illinois. With over 100 acts performing that day, it was easily the most diverse lineup I ever witnessed in concert.

The inspiration for Farm Aid came from remarks made by Bob Dylan at the successful Live Aid concert held earlier that summer. "I hope", Dylan said, that some of the money that's raised for the people in Africa, maybe they could just take a little bit of it, maybe … one or two million … to pay the mortgages on some of the farms." Willie Nelson felt that this was a fine idea. Soon, along with John Mellencamp, Nelson organized farmers to travel to Washington to testify before Congress about their struggles. In addition, with Neil Young, they began to put together a benefit concert intended to provide assistance to struggling American farmers. They named their benefit Farm Aid, and billed it as "A Concert For America".

They chose the University of Illinois' Memorial Stadium as the site for their show, and enlisted Chicago promoter Ron Stern to oversee the logistics. Arriving in Champaign, Stern quickly learned that the home of the Fighting Illini was ill-equipped to be a music venue: “There was only 100-amp [mains] service at the stadium; not nearly enough to power a whole stage show and a dressing room/backstage complex,” he recalls. Also, a way had to be devised for getting the myriad of acts on and off stage efficiently without delaying the show. Stern brought in $50,000 worth of generators and negotiated with the power company for additional electrical capacity. To keep the show moving, a manually-operated rotating stage was built. Divided in half, while one act performed for the audience, the next act set up their gear on the half behind the curtains.

The diverse roster of performers for Farm Aid I was a spectacular array of country, rock, and blues artists rarely matched on any stage before or since. Twenty-five years on, a lot of memories of that day are a bit fuzzy, but for sheer variety and quality, I've never experienced another day of music quite like it. The show began in a steady drizzle, but by afternoon the skies had cleared, and over 75,000 of us enjoyed a fine Midwestern autumn evening. Country kingpins like Alabama, Vince Gill and Kenny Rogers appeared on the bill with legends such as Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Loretta Lynn and George Jones. Acoustic performers like Joni Mitchell and John Denver were featured during the day; after dark rockers like Foreigner and Huey Lewis took the stage. John Fogerty came out with a woman dressed as a pig who danced on stage, symbolizing Fogerty's legal troubles with his ex-manager. Bon Jovi, barely known at the time, played one of their first shows in a stadium atmosphere. Lone Justice, another emerging act, played one of the night's sharpest sets. Bob Dylan appeared, backed by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers. Their performance was so well-received that they soon agreed to launch a nationwide tour together. Sammy Hagar played live with Van Halen for the first time; Hagar launched into a raunchy monologue that got their set taken off The Nashville Network's live broadcast. Founders Young and Mellencamp turned in fine performances. Willie Nelson's set began the day's proceedings. He was a bundle of energy all day, bounding on and off the stage, introducing acts, generally keeping the party going. Nobody throws a party like Willie Nelson. Well past midnight, he launched into an hour-long set that I don't think was scheduled; I'm sure that he would have played till dawn if they had let him.

Farm Aid I raised over $9 million for struggling farmers, raised awareness of rural issues, and began a tradition that surprised Farm Aid's founders, who thought that they were putting together a one-time-only event. To this day, the Farm Aid organization has raised over $37 million and continues to advocate for family farmers throughout the USA. Celebrate 25 years of Farm Aid by checking out these classic performances from founders Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, and Neil Young from that first show in Champaign. For more details, there's this excellent article about the challenges involved in staging that now-historic show.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Ronnie James Dio

Hard rock vocalist Ronnie James Dio, best known for his stints in Rainbow and Black Sabbath as well as fronting his own band for many years, passed away Sunday after a long battle with stomach cancer. He was 67 years old.

He was born Ronald James Padavona in Portsmouth, New Hampshire on July 10, 1942; his family moved to Cortland, New York when he was a boy. While in his teens, he joined local group The Vegas Kings as their bass player, eventually becoming lead vocalist. He took his stage name from the Mafia figure Johnny Dio. During the 60's, Dio undertook a journey familiar to many other musicians of his era, moving from the rockabilly-oriented Vegas Kings and Ronnie And The Redcaps to the more "progressive" Ronnie Dio And The Prophets and Electric Elves. He honed a powerful vocal style that pushed his bandmates further into hard rock territory. By the early 70's, their name shortened to Elf, they earned a recording contract and a slot opening for Deep Purple. Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore took notice, and when he launched his solo career in 1975 selected Dio and other members of Elf to form Rainbow. Rainbow released four successful albums before Dio and Blackmore parted ways in 1979.

Dio next joined Black Sabbath on the suggestion of Sharon Arden, the daughter of that group's manager. (Sharon would go on to marry original Sabbath vocalist Ozzy Osborne and become something of a celebrity in her own right.) Upon Osborne's departure, many pegged Black Sabbath for a long descent into mediocrity, a relic of a bygone time. But Dio's presence would rejuvenate the veterans of sludge rock, spurring the group to record Heaven And Hell, their finest hour. Dio's vocals seemed to light a fire under guitarist Tony Iommi in particular, while his lyrics, laden with medieval imagery, worked well within Black Sabbath's musical context. Heaven And Hell returned Sabbath to the top of the heavy metal heap, and a series of triumphant live shows cemented the resurgence. Dio would greet the fans at the start of each concert by raising a fist high in the air with the first and fourth finger extended, a gesture he picked up from his grandmother. The corna, or sign of the horns, has many connotations in Italian folk culture, including the power to ward off the evil eye. Although probably not the first to flash the horns on stage, Dio would help popularize the sign into an internationally recognized symbol of rock and roll.

Black Sabbath's followup LP with Dio, Mob Rules, was a huge disappointment, returning the group to the murk of their pre-Heaven And Hell releases. The Sabs rebounded somewhat with a strong tour supporting the album, replacing drummer Bill Ward with veteran Vinny Appice. Dates from that tour were recorded for the Live Evil LP. Tensions flared between Dio, Iommi, and bassist Geezer Butler during the album's production, with Iommi and Butler accusing Dio of tampering with the mix behind their backs to highlight his vocals. Dio claimed that the other band members knew what he was doing, and that Iommi and Butler gave him permission to mix his vocals as he saw fit. Mutual dissatisfaction with Live Evil led Dio to part company with Black Sabbath in November 1982, taking Appice with him.

He would go on to form the band Dio, also featuring Appice and guitarist Vivian Campbell, releasing a credible debut Holy Diver in 1983. By now, Dio's style was well established, and his band would go on to release discs through the 80's and 90's, each successive release digging the creative rut a bit deeper. The group would enjoy a bit of an artistic comeback after 2000, as notable musicians such as Rudy Sarzo and Doug Aldrich would spend time in the lineup. Dio also reunited with his Black Sabbath bandmates from 2007-09, touring and recording under the name Heaven And Hell.

Although not immune to the bombastic excess that plagues the metal genre, Ronnie James Dio possessed one of rock's distinctive voices, and when at his best was capable of electrifying a recording studio or concert stage. The title track of Heaven And Hell became a signature performance, and this vintage clip from his Black Sabbath days captures him in fine form.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Party like its May 1

There was also a little rhyme we learned in junior high school (where else?) that went something like this:

Hooray, hooray, it's the first of May!
Outdoor fucking begins today!

You could try that at Pole Hill today, down by the crick, but you'd get plenty wet, and perhaps hit by lightning as well. If it wasn't raining today I'd probably be out mowing grass.


Thought I'd better check in, just in case somebody still checks this place once in a while, only to regularly have their hopes dashed by the lack of new material. I don't get around like I used to, and a big part of that is due to what they've done to us at work. Around the first of the year they started blocking Blogger on an intermittent basis. Some days I can get in to see my blog, some I can't. I'm almost never able to get to my dashboard to post. As for other blogs, it's the same thing - it seems that it is all at the whim of Websense and our network administrators. Nearly all of you that I follow regularly have gotten a 3 AM visit from me at some point, as I used to get caught up with my blog rounds during the dead times at work. I can't do near as much of that any more. Frustrating for me, but someone, somewhere should be glad that certain government employees aren't wasting time on the computer any more. I try to get around as I can at home, but there's a lot of other things needing done here as well.


Ah, yes. I had a talk with my doctor a while back. My blood sugar is up, and he says I show signs of being pre-diabetic. Not good. He recommended a series of pushback exercises for me, as in pushing back from the table. But the most difficult part for me went something like this:

DR.: Also, starting today, you need to stop drinking alcohol.

ME: But I only drink a beer or two after work.

DR.: No.

ME: Not even one beer a week?

DR: Not even one a week.

ME: How about one a month?

DR: I said NO!

Not like I was an alcoholic or anything, but I liked to have my beer to wind down, and now I'm cut off, apparently for the rest of my days. I'm managing OK so far, but when we go up to St. Louis for the baseball game next month, it will be a challenge. But I want to be around as long as I can, and stay in reasonably good health. Jenn and the kids give me even more incentive to do so.


My blogroll is once again filling up with dead links, and is needing my attention. It will get a revamping in the next few weeks. Our old buddy the Farmer is one of those who have changed his digs recently. Check out his new place, have a few laughs, and maybe even learn something.


Back to the beginning of this post, today is the day that most of the rest of the world celebrates Labor Day. By the mid-19th century, the international socialist movement had already adopted May 1 as a day of solidarity. American labor groups, not wishing to be seen as aligned with the radical left, eventually decided upon the first Monday in September for our Labor Day celebrations. Today, though, is still a special day for old labor guys like me to take a moment to recall the struggles of working people around the world, and to stand in solidarity with them as part of the worldwide fight for justice and dignity for all who work for a living throughout the world.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Malcolm McLaren

Malcolm McLaren, a flamboyant impresario best known as the former manager of The Sex Pistols, passed away at age 64 after a struggle with cancer.

Born in London and raised by his maternal grandmother, in his youth McLaren had already picked up a reputation for being subversive and manipulative. Drifting through several art colleges in the late 60's, he became interested in the tactics of the Situationists, the French-based avant-garde anticapitalists who staged elaborate pranks as a means of spreading their message. McLaren left school for good in 1971 and with his girlfriend Vivienne Westwood opened his first London boutique, Let It Rock. In 1975 he traveled to New York where he met up with glam-rockers The New York Dolls and convinced them to let him manage them. McLaren's promotional ideas, including using a hammer-and-sickle style design motif for their stage show, did not go over well, and the Dolls broke up later that year.

Returning to London, he and Westwood renamed their shop Sex, and began selling punk and S&M gear. The shop became a hangout for bored, frustrated London youths; aggression was in the air. Among this crowd were a number of musicians who felt that the London music scene was becoming much too tame. One day a young man sporting green hair and the words "I HATE" scrawled across the top of his torn Pink Floyd T-shirt strolled in. McLaren dubbed him "Johnny Rotten", and soon he was rehearsing with some other musicians who hung out at Sex, forming a group that soon was known as The Sex Pistols.

Due to the way that their brief career played out, and in large part because of the flamboyant promotion of McLaren and the outrageous behavior he encouraged in the band members, some people today regard The Sex Pistols as a joke. In their early days, though, they made music to be reckoned with. John "Johnny Rotten" Lydon's corrosive vocals expressed the anger and frustration of London youth, supported by Steve Jones' slashing guitar lines and Paul Cook's powerful drumming. Original bassist Glen Matlock was also a competent songwriter. Their debut LP, Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols, remains the greatest punk rock album ever recorded. "God Save The Queen" scandalized the entire United Kingdom, while "Anarchy in the UK" is simply one of the two or three best hard rock songs of all time.

Trouble started with the dismissal of bassist Matlock, allegedly for being too respectable in his music tastes, but perhaps also because he wasn't as easily swayed by McLaren as the other group members. His replacement, Sid Vicious, was the embodiment of punk style but absolutely clueless as a musician. Vicious also brought with him a nasty heroin habit that only intensified during his Pistols tenure. As the quality of the band's performances deteriorated, the focus shifted increasingly to McLaren's stunts, which is perhaps how he wanted it all along. The Sex Pistols broke up at the end of a chaotic American tour, with Lydon snarling at the crowd, "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" at the conclusion of the group's final gig in San Francisco. Lydon, Cook and Jones went their separate ways, while commencing a series of lawsuits against their former manager. Sid Vicious went on to die of a heroin overdose.

Malcolm McLaren simply kept on hustling. He briefly managed Adam Ant, as well as taking some of Ant's backing musicians and teaming them up with teen singer Annabella Lwin to form Bow Wow Wow. He put together another Sex Pistols album, The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle from odds and ends, serving as the soundtrack to a movie that told the Pistols' story in farcical fashion from McLaren's point of view. He also established a successful music career in his own right, scoring UK hits with "Buffalo Gals" and "Double Dutch". In 1985 he offered to manage the then-unknown Red Hot Chili Peppers, but they turned him down, as he wished to move their music away from its funky roots toward a punk direction.

McLaren continued to diversify during the 90's, composing music for British television and for commercials. He also continued to release solo recordings, and in 1998 attempted to launch a female Chinese pop group, Jungk. He briefly considered running for mayor of London, wrote a number of magazine articles and appeared on British reality TV.

Arguably, McLaren's only real talent was for self-promotion. Yet, smooth talkers with big ideas have always been at the heart of popular culture, and the music world will always find a place for the outrageous likes of those like Malcolm McLaren.