Mr. Cub

Remembering Ernie Banks: This Cub Fan’s Experiences With Mr. Cub

This is long overdue, but it’s time I write about my experiences with the late Ernie Banks. Mr. Cub passed away after suffering a heart attack exactly one month ago, on January 23 of this year. The national outpouring of remembrances and testimonials to his character were mind boggling. Not only was he recognized as one of the best baseball players to ever don a uniform, but he was also noted for being one of the finest individuals to walk the Earth.

During the summer of 2001 I worked at Chicago’s Family Golf Center. Despite the lacking and uninspired name, the Family Golf Center was a priceless gem located in the heart of downtown Chicago. Situated snugly on a patch of acreage south of the Chicago River, north of the Blue Cross/Blue Shield Building, and right between Lake Shore Drive and Columbus Drive, the Golf Center was an oasis among the glass and steel monoliths of the Chicago skyline. It was essentially the backyard to the Aon Center, currently Chicago’s third tallest building. aon bulding(One sunny Sunday morning a few of us watched mesmerized as a massive Heavy Lift Helicopter hoisted a giant new air conditioning unit from the flatbed of an 18-wheel semi parked on the southwest corner of the driving range straight up to the top of the 83-story tower. That was pretty cool to watch.)

S-64 Departure

The Family Golf Center was truly something special. It was home to a 9-hole par-3 course that was far from challenging, but nonetheless a thrill to play every time. Its signature 9th hole was beautiful, however, featuring a somewhat daunting island green. FamGolf9thHoleThe driving range featured dual hitting lines directly across from one another. While spaced well over 300 yards apart, on windy days golfers were not permitted to swing their drivers as the stiff Chicago gusts that would tear between the buildings if coming from the west, or roar off of Lake Michigan when blowing from the east, would carry well struck drives majestically across the range, much like one of Ernie Banks’ 512 professional home runs. One of the most amazing things I’ve experienced as a golfer was to be able to stand on the east side of the range at night and hit golf balls directly toward the immaculately lit Chicago skyline. There is little in the world that can compare to swinging a 5-iron and striking a perfect, high-arcing shot as it soars into the glitter of the sparkling lights of the office buildings, hotels, and condos that decorate the night sky. Don’t even get me started on nights where Navy Pier fireworks lit the horizon over the lake, or that time of year of the Air and Water Show when the Blue Angels would roar between the downtown buildings, disappear so far over Lake Michigan that they must have crossed into Indiana, only to return moments later in perfect formation and disappear to the west of the City. And repeat. golfcourse165
It was one of the greatest jobs I had. Sadly, my time there only lasted a single summer, and the Golf Center closed in 2003 as the land was repurposed by developers who turned it into an urban suburbia of sorts.

Needless to say, I accrued many wonderful memories that stay with me from my several month tenure at the Center. However, there was also a significant not-so-wonderful memory, as the events of the morning of September 11 that year unfolded. After watching, stupefied, as the World Trade Center towers came tumbling down, I realized I still had to go to work. Almost in a daze, I found myself driving into a eerily abandoned downtown Chicago, as those who worked there scrambled to evacuate the city. I walked into the facility to find my colleagues glued, teary-eyed, to the giant screen television in the bar. None of them looked up when I walked in, and after taking care of a few essential responsibilities, I joined them. We did have a scant number of patrons come to hit balls from the range that afternoon, if only to escape the horror of what we were all subject to that morning. But I remember taking a moment to stand outside alone, staring up at the massive Aon Center. Built just a year before the Twin Towers in New York City, the Aon’s construction design was actually duplicated for the Towers. It was a humbling moment to be in the shadow of this skyscraper, unable to comprehend the unfathomable prospect of such a massive structure crashing to the ground. Like everyone else alive at the time, I’ll never forget that day.

I could probably write pages and pages about that summer at the golf course, but my most cherished memories of working at the Chicago Family Golf Center, are those that involve the presence of Ernie Banks, who would frequent the course.

Before I had the opportunity to meet Ernie, I’d heard of his regular visits from the others with whom I worked. One of our golf pros, Gil Davis, would speak of Ernie as though he were an old friend. I soon realized that he was. Ernie was everyone’s old friend, even if you had just met him for the first time.

On days when Ernie would show up, he would enter the Family Golf Center with a humble flourish. Naturally, everyone knew who he was. Patrons would stop whatever they were doing, their faces lighting up instantly. Whether one was a baseball fan or not, a Cub fan or a White Sox fan, everyone took immense delight in having the opportunity to be in such close proximity to a living legend — literally; in 2009 Ernie Banks was designated as a Library Of Congress Living Legend.

Usually, Ernie would stroll casually toward the Golf Center’s front desk, shaking hands with whomever presented one. He would trade some banter with the employees he knew, and go out of his way to get to know those he did not. His glimmering teeth shone as that seemingly permanent boyish grin seldom left his face. He wasn’t the skinny kid anymore who was the first National League player ever to win back-to-back Most Valuable Player awards in the 1958 and ’59 seasons. His ankles were still skinny, but his thighs and hips were widened with age and hip replacement surgeries. He walked, not with a limp, but the gait of a man who had given his all to the 19 years he spent playing professional baseball. His shoulders, while not withered, were far from the shoulders of the man who hit more than 40 home runs in five different seasons. But then you shake his hand. While the strength of his handshake was far from overpowering (perhaps an intentional gesture from a man who was aware of his own prowess with a baseball bat), his massive paw would engulf the average person’s own hand, rendering it nearly invisible. Ernie-BanksAnd if one were astute enough to notice his wrists, he or she would swear that those wrists hummed with the intrinsic mass that is energy at rest. It wasn’t difficult to see why this once impossibly slender figure was such a prolific power hitter.

After catching up with employees and customers around the front desk, Ernie would walk slowly through the Center’s restaurant/bar. This is where I first met him. While I was a low-level manager of the Golf Center, my bartending skills were the most valuable to the place during the lunch rush. Those individuals lucky enough to be in attendance when Ernie stopped in would say hello, invariably greeted with his trademark smile, and his standard line, “How ya doin’? How’s the wife?” It didn’t matter if he knew who you were, he always asked about the family. Whether he actually cared about you or not, he sure as hell made it seem like he cared deeply.

So when I finally met him for the first time, I found myself starstruck. I’d seen him many times from the various vantage points that was my seat on any given day at Wrigley Field, as he’d show up at the ballpark regularly, embracing his role as Cubs’ ambassador. He would mingle among the players, constantly waving at fans. But when I met him in person, and Gil introduced me to him, I couldn’t help but revel in his presence. This was Ernie Banks! This was Mr. Cub! This was the first ballot Hall of Famer that my grandfather would gush about with adolescent giddiness. I was shaking hands with Ernie Banks. And look at those wrists!

The content of our first conversation is largely lost thanks to an inability for me to even comprehend at the time that I was meeting this man. But I do remember that he immediately put me at ease asking me a couple questions about golf. I’m pretty sure he cracked a joke about Gil’s own golf game, implying that it needed work (which it seldom did, from my perspective, anyway). Then he ordered something to eat, and went outside where he and Gil sat at a table on the patio, enjoying one another’s company beneath the shade of an umbrella.

Ernie was a relative fixture at the Golf Center whenever he was in town. He was there often enough that he knew my name. Ernie Banks knew my name! My favorite visits were always when he’d arrive mid-afternoon during the week when the place was quiet, and the bar essentially empty. Our exchanges almost always went the same way.

ERNIE: Hiya, Mike! Good to see you. How’s your wife? How’s the kids?
ME: Hello, Mr. Banks! I still don’t have a wife. And still no kids.
ERNIE: Well why not, Mike? Don’t you like kids? Marriage is the greatest. It’s great to be in love with a wonderful woman.
ME: I know it, Ernie. I just haven’t met the right woman yet, I guess.
ERNIE: You will, Michael. You definitely will. What kinda woman you lookin’ for, anyway?
ME: Well, she better be a Cub fan.
ERNIE: (laughs) Well that’s the truth. You’re a good man, Mister Mike. I’ll keep my eye out for a woman for you. We gotta get you some kids.

More than a decade has passed since those interactions, and still I remain unmarried and childless. But virtually every time I saw him, Ernie asked, “How’s your wife?” I almost feel like I let Ernie down. Actually, one night that same summer I found myself at a tavern called Tai’s ‘Til 4. It was a Wrigleyville staple that remained open until 4:00 am, hence the name. On this particular night, former Cub relief pitcher and notorious night-life enthusiast Kyle Farnsworth was behind the bar, pouring shots for patrons. I worked my way up to the bar, and managed to get his attention for a moment. Needless to say, Farnsworth was more interested in interacting with the ladies than he was with me. But when I mentioned that I was an acquaintance of Ernie Banks he actually leaned closer to talk to me. I remember asking about Ernie’s presence in the Cubs’ clubhouse. “When Ernie comes into the clubhouse, does he ask you about your wife and kids?” Farnsworth’s face lit up with a smile as massive as his gigantic forearms, and he actually stood up tall, leaned back and laughed out loud. He acknowledged that, yes, in fact Ernie would ask him that every time. He would ask everyone that same question, or some close variation. With this sudden kinship formed, Farnsworth shook my hand and poured us both a shot of something-or-other. We toasted to Mr. Cub, shook hands again, and then Farnsworth returned the focus of his attention to the ladies.

My absolute favorite memory of Ernie Banks, however, came late one evening as the summer was quietly dwindling away, and when the driving range was quiet. It was probably around 7:30 pm on a night when the sun wouldn’t set for at least another hour. I had been out on a golf cart just checking on the grounds. Only a few golfers were out on the course, and a smattering of individuals peppered either side of the driving range. I completed some of my various duties and headed back toward the maintenance shed, parked the cart, and proceeded toward the bar. I walked up toward the patio to find Ernie and Gil seated at a table, side by side, facing the driving range. They were just talking casually when Ernie saw me approaching. “Mike,” he said. “How’s the wife?” But before I could reply he invited me to join them. “It’s a beautiful, beautiful night,” he said. “Sit down and relax. You work too hard.” So I sat down.

For the next 40 minutes or so I sat with Gil and Ernie Banks, just casually talking about nothing in particular, and everything in general. He asked Gil a few questions about how to adjust his golf swing. He asked me some general questions about my golf game. I told him that I didn’t generally score all that well, but I was surprisingly long off the tee. I want to say that he smiled and made a comment about skinny guys with power. Then he gave me a tip or two, as Gil sat quietly and smirked. Eventually the conversation turned to a new style of tee that Ernie had begun using. His golf bag was situated just beside him, so he reached into a pocket and pulled out a handful. They were made of some sort of synthetic material and were supposed to help one’s drive remain true. Gil looked at it and I think he sort of wrote it off as a gimmick. When asked by Ernie, Gil acknowledged that he had tried them and didn’t necessarily notice a difference. Ernie then asked me if I’d ever hit off one . I told him that I hadn’t, so he insisted I try it right then. He tossed me the tee, and pulled a club from his bag. I think it was a 4-iron. “Go on, Mister Mike. Hit some balls with this.” I stood and took the club from Ernie’s huge hand, I clumsily grabbed a handful of range balls that were in a small bucket near Ernie’s feet, and walked the 20 or so feet to the hitting line on the range.

As I palmed a beat up, red-striped driving range golf ball, I bent down to press the tee into the turf. I stood and wrapped my hands around Ernie’s club. It was then that I became truly aware of the fact that the same hands that had once hit five grand slams in a single season (a record that stood for 32 years until Don Mattingly hit six in 1987) were regularly wrapped around the grips on the golf club that I was now clutching. I actually paused, standing upright with the club head in the air, and gazed at my own hands, my right pinky finger locked beneath my left index finger, as I cradled the club. A smile crept across my face. Before lowering the club to hit from the tee, I glanced back at Gil and Ernie. They both sat with crooked grins on their faces, somehow aware of the moment I was experiencing. Gil’s smirk conveyed an almost big-brotherly appreciation for being privy to this moment. Ernie’s smile was almost bashful. Not embarrassed, but humble. He knew that this was sort of a big deal for me. In hindsight I almost feel sort of silly. I wasn’t holding the bat that Ernie used to hit his 500th homerun, but to the 27-year-old kid holding Ernie Banks’ golf club, it might as well been just that.

I quickly gathered myself and stepped up to hit some balls off of Ernie’s tee. I have no recollection of how well I struck those balls, or if that tee in anyway affected the quality of my shots. But I’ll never forget the smell of the grass, or the scent of the lavender bushes planted nearby, or the faint odor of the car exhaust that sometimes wafted from the traffic speeding along on LSD. When I then exhausted the handful of balls I’d initially grabbed, Ernie reached into the bucket and effortlessly tossed another ball toward me. I’d tee it up, hit it, and he’d toss another. In all he probably tossed 10 or 12 balls my way, each invariably coming to rest at almost precisely the same spot between my feet. Even at 70 years old, this guy was still an athlete.

I finally walked back to the table, returned the club to Ernie, and resumed my seat along side him and Gil. We talked some more about the tee. We talked some more about random other things, as well. Again, the topics escape me. Slowly the sun began to disappear further behind the mountainous buildings that stood behind us. Closing time for the Family Golf Center was approaching and duty called again. Gil also had some things to attend to, so the three of us stood, taking a moment to wrap up whatever it was we had been talking about, and Gil and I returned to work. Ernie left the Center shortly after that, making sure to find us in order say goodnight. We shook hands again, and he walked out into the warmth of the summer night.

I believe that to be the last time I ever saw Ernie Banks face to face. He often split time between Chicago and his California home, not to mention his other missions of baseball and human goodwill around the world. (This man actually once had an audience with the Pope. The freakin’ Pope!) As the summer turned to autumn, my short stint at the Family Golf Center came to an end, and with it so did my brief friendship with Ernie Banks. Sadly I also lost touch with Gil and the cast of characters I’d grown to enjoy so very much. Just another the many lost lifetimes I’ve experienced over the years.

Clearly, I’ll never forget those interactions with Ernie Banks. I’ll never forget how he made me feel like I was someone he wanted to spend time with. I’ll never forget the soft Texas drawl of his voice as he spoke. I’ll never forget the gentle feel of his hand as it engulfed mine every time we shook hands. I’ll never forget the patience he exhibited as he signed autographs or took pictures with fans. (I never did get a picture of myself with him. A regret I have to this day. But I think at the time I was so content just to be around him that I honestly never considered it. Camera phones wouldn’t really be the norm for another two years or so.) But mostly I’ll never forget the sincerity that Ernie exuded at all times. He was always happy. He was always positive. He was always happy to see you.


Ernie Banks coined the term “friendly confines” in reference to Wrigley Field, but really, anywhere that Ernie stood could be called as much, because I doubt there could ever be another person in this world who was friendlier.

Fare thee well, sweet Mr. Banks. If you find yourself playing two on the Field of Dreams, hit one into the corn for me.

Book Review: Dialogues Of A Crime – by John K. Manos

It’s taken me two years to finally sit down and write a review of this book. That’s far too long. It’s too good of a book to have waited that long. I think I was so moved by it and enjoyed it so much, that writing about it was difficult for me. As it happens, author John Manos is a family friend whom I’ve know for essentially my entire life; at least, I’ve known him for as long as I can remember. He used to teach me chords to Buddy Holly songs on his electric guitar in the Evanston home he shares with his wife Leah. Seeing an electric guitar was an amazing novelty to me back then, let alone having the chance to actually hold and play one. Many, many years later, John and I would have the opportunity to perform with our respective bands on the same stage, on the same bill. That was a pretty big deal for me. I suspect it might’ve been pretty cool for him, too.

John and my father worked together for decades, and for more than just a single company. It’s safe to say that watching the interaction between the two of them over the years has had a major influence on who I am today. Their combined sense of humor always made my younger self wish I was old enough to work with them. They always seemed to make work fun for themselves, and their employees. As fate would have it, I eventually did have this opportunity for a brief period shortly before graduating college. I worked as an intern at the financial magazine for which John was editor-in-chief. Meanwhile, my father was editor-in-chief of its sister publication, and worked out of the same offices. I don’t think I appreciated it at the time, but it was a pretty great period in my life. As a kid I would revel in watching my dad and John play on company softball teams together and have a blast at company picnics, and now here I was, playing right along side them.

Dialogues of a Crime

With all of that said, I like to think that it’s not a coincidence that the main character of this book is named Michael. (You know, ’cause that’s my name.) But I’m not here to speculate. The story opens in the mid-1970’s when Michael is a relatively average 19-year-old college student. Like many college students regardless of the decade, Michael dabbled in marijuana. But unlike most of us, his experimentation experiences lead to him being arrested for assisting in the sale of the drug. Basically he unknowingly directed an undercover cop to the dorm room of a student who was selling.

Michael has a childhood friend who’s father happens to be a very important member of a Chicago mafia family. He’s powerful enough to have easily saw to it that Michael never see any time in jail. But Michael’s father is a proud man and refuses to let his son be associated with a known crime boss. Between this pride and the low-income situation Michael and his family find themselves, Michael ends up taking a deal that ultimately does send him to jail. Of course this, mixed with the violent events that Michael faces while locked up, proceed to alter the course of Michael’s life.

Eventually, we move forward in Michael’s timeline and meet him again as he works as a mild-mannered professional living in Chicago. Of course, his past catches up with him as a bizarre series of events unfold, introducing a mystery which falls into the lap of a Chicago police detective who, naturally, has his own demons. The solving of the mystery almost takes a back seat to the amazing character studies and relationship development between several of the characters within the story, not the least of which involves the detective.

Honestly, this book had the potential to become completely cliche. As I sit here describing it, I’m becoming even more aware of how easy it would have been to fall into that writer’s trap. Obviously, having been close with the author for more than three-and-a-half decades, I wanted this to be a masterpiece. But my fear was that it would be trite, trivial, and poorly executed. Of course, again from having known John for so long, I should have known better than to worry. John has always been a character in his own right, and it wouldn’t be in his nature to publish something less than masterful. Is this novel a masterpiece? I don’t know if I can say that, but it is literally one of the only books I’ve ever read that made me openly cry. There’s a very moving scene between Michael and the mafia boss that was so well crafted and so delicately written, that before I knew what was happening I had tears rolling down my cheeks. I’ve read a lot of great, moving books over the years. There was a time that I devoured books with such voracity I would plow through two or three of ’em a week. During that time, I was certainly moved to laughter, and to sadness, but I don’t recall ever having been moved to tears. Dialogues of a Crime moved me to tears.

It might have been a combination of the joy I felt as I became more and more engrossed in this work of art that my friend had created mixed with a little bit of it being emotionally the “right time, right place” for that particular scene to move me. But regardless, there’s something to be said for any writer and his ability to garner a physical response like that. It’s an impressive feat.

Best of all is that the story’s conclusion is immensely gratifying. It’s a strange combination of what you almost want/expect, mixed with a touch of “what the hell…?” But John creates the finale with such grace and finesse, it works perfectly. It’s a Hollywood ending with Chicago flavor. Part of what makes it work so well is the culmination of the character’s cultivation within their respective relationships. Given some of the unspeakable scenarios that occur (which I’ve intentionally left out of this review) the need for a sense of closure with each of the main players is a necessity. But more importantly, it’s almost as if it gives the reader a chance to sort of decompress with the characters themselves. If written any differently, I fear we’d all put the book down left with little more than a case of the Bends.

This is so much more than just a great story, or an enthralling mystery. It’s an investigation into the human psyche as much as it is a look into the penal system, or the world of organized crime. It almost takes reader involvement to a new level of interaction. As I read the book, I found times where I actually put it down in order to ponder philosophical questions which were raised by the story. Seriously, what more could a person want out of a book?

I actually don’t know if my friend John has any other manuscripts in the works, I hope he does. And frankly, knowing him, I’m certain he does. I know I’m eager to read what’s next. In the meantime, I’ll have to reread this one again.

My John Pinette Story

I need to share my John Pinette story.

Somewhere around 10-13 years ago, I was enjoying a night with friends at the Pour House in Chicago, one of my regular hangouts. We became good friends with Al, the owner, and often went to after-hours bars with him. He knew a lot of people. On this particular night we went to the Golden Dragon, a Chinese restaurant in Olde Town that was situated very near Zanie’s Comedy Club. We’d been there before and were always treated to incredible Far East delicacies, and great liquor. The owner of the Golden Dragon was a character in his own right. He was a smallish Asian man who clearly loved America. If memory serves, he wore a plaid cowboy shirt. Some would consider this the shirt of a Wicker Park hipster. And one might’ve considered him as such if he weren’t wearing it because he actually wanted to be a cowboy. Even better, however, was his belt buckle, which he loved to show off. It was a functioning single-shot pistol that snapped into place. I only have his word to go on that it was actually a working pistol, but according to Al, his word was good.

On this night as we walked into the restaurant, however, it was impossible to miss the enormous human frame that was John Pinette. I didn’t know his name at the time, but I absolutely recognized him immediately from the final Seinfeld episode. Plus, he happened to appear on the Tonight Show just days earlier. I never watched the Tonight Show, but I randomly caught his set the night he performed. He was hilarious. Most of his jokes revolved around his weight, but he did it with such ease that it almost seemed as though he was making fun of someone else. Someone not in the room. I became a fan instantly.

It was well after 2:00 am and the restaurant was closed and essentially empty. Other than the four people in our group, the only people in the place were Asian John Wayne, a couple cooks we couldn’t see, John Pinette and another individual with Pinette. The two sat across from one another at a long table. I vaguely remember Al later whispering to me that the other individual was the owner of Zanie’s. I can’t be sure, but after doing some research I believe that person might have been Rick Uchwat, the founder of the club. Uchwat is about as highly regarded as they come in the comedy world. This article shortly after his death three years ago illustrates as much. 

As our group, led by Al, walked into the restaurant. Asian John Wayne saw us and immediately smiled and raised his arms as he walked quickly over to embrace Al. Any pretense of his forced cowboy swagger was lost in his enthusiasm to greet his friend, and he pranced gracefully through the tables to lead us the rest of the way inside. John Wayne recognized me as well from a past visit, but at this point I had already recognized John Pinette and was distracted, somewhat rudely, from greeting John Wayne myself. I wasted little time, having had plenty to drink myself at this point, I quickly spoke up. I remember it distinctly, in fact. Al and John Wayne were still exchanging how-do-you-do’s, and we were only about halfway inside the place, but I stood directly to his left, about 10 feet away.

I looked over at him and said, “Sir, I saw you on the Tonight Show the other night and you made me laugh out loud. Thanks for that.”

He looked right up at me with a twinkle in his eye. He smiled wide, those pudgy cheeks straining to points on either side of his mouth, and he responded with a truly sincere, “Thank you. Thank you. That’s sweet of you say.”

This is the smile and rotund, cherub face I remember from that night so long ago.

This is the smile and rotund, cherub face I remember from that night so long ago.

And with that we were quickly invited to join him and Uchwat (assuming that’s who that actually was that night) at their table. I took a seat to the right of Uchwat. John Pinette was sitting across from both of us. He was truly larger than life. At this point I don’t remember exactly what my other friends were doing. But I believe Al and John Wayne were chatting at the bar. I definitely remember that one of my friends had too much to drink and stealthily slinked his way to a booth and closed his eyes. And I think our fourth sat across from me, to John’s left.

John Wayne would shout some orders to the kitchen in Mandarin or whatnot, and for the next hour or so we were treated to platter after platter of delicious Far Eastern delights. I don’t remember what we talked about, but we were there for what had to be the better part of three hours. Without warning there suddenly appeared several bottles of Jägermeister. We each essentially had our own bottle and were instructed to pour ourselves shots at will. We did. Then several already rolled joints made their way onto the table and we were instructed to light up a fresh one at any time. We did.

I sat across from John Pinette for as long as I could that night. I laughed and I laughed and I drank and I drank and I passed joints to him and laughed some more and I took joints he passed to me and laughed and drank some more. Naturally, the amount we imbibed that night prevents me from clearly remembering the intricacies of our conversation, but the details of what we spoke about aren’t important. What I took away from that night was the way he welcomed us to his table with zero hesitation. Almost as though he’d been waiting for us. He talked to us all night like we were old friends. He asked us questions about ourselves, he told us stories about filming the final Seinfeld episode. We told him stories about little league or some such trifle and asked him about life on the road. But we never stopped laughing. I don’t remember a single joke he said that night, but I remember laughing almost non-stop.

The set that he performed on The Tonight Show was my introduction to him as a stand-up, but of course I knew him from the final Seinfeld episode. Since that time I’ve heard quite a bit of his comedy. I recognize that I’m biased based on this experience, but I might argue that he is one of the funniest comics of this era. As I mentioned, much of his comedy revolved around his weight, which was very significant, and sadly undoubtedly contributed to his early demise, but there’s no questioning the level of talent this man possessed. Not to mention that he was an amazing singer. To put it crudely, he was simply funny as shit. But moreso, in my mind, he’ll always be the warm and inviting gentleman who seemed genuinely interested in talking to us as much as we were interested in talking to him.

I thank you, John Pinette, for making me laugh when you were on Seinfeld. I thank you, John Pinette, for making me laugh when you were on The Tonight Show. I thank you for making me laugh when your bits find their way onto the comedy station I sometimes listen to as I try and fall asleep at night. But I especially thank you, John Pinette, for making me laugh like an insane man that night when I was lucky enough to sit across the table from you. The world just got a little less funny with your passing.


Nick Swisher Sings: A Swing and A Miss

Nick Swisher of the New York Yankees has released an album. That is to say, he sang a bunch of songs and someone recorded those songs and decided they should be released to the public. He released a CD — a compact disc. You can purchase his stuff on iTunes.

I’ve just listened to it.

Over the years I’ve seen various news footage videos of trains crashing into cars or trucks that find themselves stranded on railroad tracks. I’ve seen movies in which out-of-control locomotives run rampant until achieving the requisite derailment and explosion, preferably through a series of pylons holding up the roof of a subway tunnel under construction. I’m also relatively certain that I’ve seen multiple films where a subway train crashes into a well-placed ramp and crashes through to street level, sending cars and pedestrians flying.

Today, however, I truly understand how one can achieve the feeling of helplessness that must come when in the path of a train wreck. Today I know that horror — it is the type of horror that is the prelude to a fitful and unpleasant night’s sleep.

This is all because I listened to Nick Swisher’s damn album. Thanks to Nick Swisher I may never sleep soundly again.

Imagine being at a karaoke bar and hearing a relatively good singer then thinking that it’d be a good idea to record that karaoke singer and release an album. That’s what you get with Swisher’s album “Believe.”. Except in order to actually justify selling it, they added a bunch of kids as backup singers and called it a children’s album.

It’s awful. Have I mentioned that yet? Simply awful.

Click here if you’d like to share the horror.

If you buy this for your kids, I’m pretty sure that it comes with a visit from Child Services.

The Cars - Move Like This

Music Review: The Cars — New Cars quality at a old Cars price

It’s been nearly 24 years since The Cars released a studio album — 1987’s Door To Door. After four and two score years, yesterday saw the release of Move Like This, the band’s latest album. All of the band’s original members reconvened for this effort, with the notable exception of bassist and vocalist Benjamin Orr, whose voice you’ll recognize singing lead on “Drive,” “Let’s Go,” and one of my all-time favorites, “Just What I Needed.” It’s relatively clear that he’s the one thing this new album is missing. Orr passed away in 2000 after a battle with pancreatic cancer.

Lead singer Ric Ocasek handles all the vocals on this seventh album by the band. Ocasek himself has been quoted as acknowledging that Orr would have done a better job on half of them. While this is likely true, the album is still really good. It’s classic Cars. Isn’t that what we want? Too often you hear bands from decades ago reunite in an attempt to re-invent themselves. Too often these bands simply sound old. Members of these bands have a misguided interpretation of where they fit in within the confines of pop culture. I’ve loved The Cars since seventh grade. I remember walking home from school in the warmth of spring listening to “Just What I Needed” on my cassette walkman. At the time I had a crush on April Velazquez. I still do, really. And Move Like This sort of reminds me that I do.

The Cars - Move Like This

The individual gray hairs that are beginning to decorate my beard might remind me that I’m not 13 anymore, but this album is as effective as any Just For Men product when it comes to reclaiming some semblance of youth. While it appears that the band hasn’t released any of the album’s songs as a single, it occurs to me that if the MTV that we knew in the 80’s (where they actually played music videos) still existed today, it’s possible that one of several songs off of Move Like This would be featured in heavy rotation. The best thing about this album is that they sound like The Cars. Each song is simple, poppy, well-structured, and quirky, yet somewhat profound.

They’re demonstrating their relevance.

One could argue that a drawback to this album is that it doesn’t really show any major growth by The Cars as a band. It’s true that they may have gone back to the well for the soft, repetitive two-string chords and light, steady high-hat beats that remain their signature. But that’s the thing, they didn’t forget the formula, and it still works. Though it might’ve been nice to see some departure, I guess that’s what solo careers are for. However, perhaps it also represents why the extended hiatus was a positive thing. Twenty-four years worth of these albums may not have been the greatest legacy, but an album like this ain’t too bad. Despite the nearly quarter-century absence, it’s nice to know that they’ve found their way back to the record store shelves. We still have record stores, right?

Again, it’s worth noting the absence of Ben Orr. His vocals would have perfectly suited songs like the enchanting “Soon” or the eerily familiar-sounding “Sad Song” (which doesn’t actually sound sad at all). This album is vintage early Cars. Many will remember Orr’s vocals from 1978’s “Moving In Stereo” which was featured in the movie Fast Times At Ridgemont High. If I have to remind you, it’s played during the slow motion Phoebe Cates/bikini scene.

"Hi Brad. You know how cute I always thought you were."

That’s pretty much all that’s missing from this album. They’re lacking the mysterious synthesizer and Orr’s voice that helped make the Cars sound like a more complete entity. On no song is this more evident than it is on “Take Another Look.” Ocasek does a decent job with the song, but the opening lines make it clear that Orr’s higher vocal range was invaluable to the band’s success over the years. This does not diminish the overall brilliance of the album, however. It’s as a close a return to what we love about the band as one could hope.

The question is: what prompted this sudden reunion of the band? Ocasek stated ages ago that the band would “never, ever” get back together. Could this be their way of reminding people of who they are? Perhaps it’s a knock at the door of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame? Whatever the motivation, fans should be thankful. It’s an enjoyable album, and while not necessarily one of the greatest of the year, it is worth a download. You can do so for free here:

Actually, nevermind downloading this album, run out to your local Record Town or Musicland to pick up a cassette tape of your very own. Just don’t hurt yourself trying to open that ridiculous, plastic shoplifting-prevention packaging that audio tapes used to come in. You know what I’m talking about, thirty-five-and-over year olds.

Duran Duran + Mark Ronson = Newer Wave

Yesterday, March 22, Duran Duran released the packaged version of their 13th studio album, All You Need Is Now. This album was actually originally released for download in December of last year, so it’s been out for several months. Without question this is their finest album in the last decade, and probably their best since the release of Rio in 1982. It’s unquestionably a better effort than 2007’s Red Carpet Massacre.

The album is produced by British DJ-turned-producer Mark Ronson. Ronson, who won a Grammy in 2008 for producing an album with Amy Winehouse, was only six years old at the time Duran Duran released Rio.

The first notes of the album appear to be signature Ronson. Not entirely unlike his own song, “Bang Bang Bang” released last year on the album  Record Collection by Mark Ronson and the Business Intl., these harsh, synthesized sounds that open the title track “All You Need Is Now” greet the listener almost as an assault the ears. But the jagged sound of the opening quickly gives way to the always perfect vocals of Simon Le Bon. It doesn’t take long to recognize that this just might, in fact, be your father’s Duran Duran.

After 19 years, they seem to have rediscovered the qualities that made them one of the biggest bands of the 80’s. While it wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that the album oozes the New Wave pop sensibilities that were so vivid on songs like “Hungry Like the Wolf” and “The Reflex,” it probably is fair to say that it’d be corny to say that. But nonetheless, there it is.

Mark Ronson appears to be a bit retro as an artist in his own right. As a DJ, he gained notoriety not only for his talents at mixing, but also because of the vastness of the musical catalog from which he sampled. As such, many of the studio albums he’s released have distinct New Wave qualities to them. In an odd twist, he now finds himself in a position to put his own stamp on the new albums by some of those very artists that inspired him in the first place. While the individual members of Duran Duran, and Mark Ronson himself may literally be a generation apart, this pairing clearly demonstrates that music spans all generational gaps.

Unless you’re a fan of Taylor Swift. Not sure how to explain that. Sorry, future.

Dance Little Sister (Unless You’re a “Sister” — In Which Case, Please Leave)

For the last few months I’ve worked as a weekend DJ at a Chicago bowling alley. Last night I was relieved of this duty.

Pretty early on I was told that I should avoid playing songs later in the night that might attract the wrong “element.” I didn’t necessarily agree with this, but I don’t own the place, so I went along with it. It’s not like I’d have started playing hardcore rap all night every night, but it would’ve been nice to have the freedom to mix up the late-night playlist to include more R&B, club/dance, and some hip hop. But I was told what to avoid, so I did.

On one or two of those weekends where the owner was away, however, I might’ve pushed the envelope a bit. I’d put on Skee-Lo. Tone Loc. Candyman. Musto and Bones. These artists are more likely to attract drunken, white, 20-something douchebags than they are the “wrong element” that this owner seemed to fear. But on that first occasion when I worked up the courage to sneak a Tribe Called Quest song into the mix, you can imagine my surprise when the place wasn’t burned to the ground. I think I’d been conditioned to believe that if it was after midnight and I played “The Humpty Dance,”  a gangland massacre would’ve been the result.

So last night while DJing at this same Chicago bowling alley, I was berated by one of the owners for breaking this unwritten rule. I was told that I “still don’t get it.” I was told that there are undesirables in the place who the owner would like to see leave and the song I was playing was encouraging them to stay. The fact is that I can take criticism with the best of ’em. In fact, I often seek it out. It’s how we get better at stuff in life. However, I simply have no tolerance for being treated like an asshole. And while it may be difficult for many to believe, I AM actually an adult. If I got drunk and ran over your dog with my car, yell at me all you want. If I irresponsibly forgot to pick you up at the airport because I was playing video games, yell at me all you want. If I sold all of your heart medication for beer money and as a result you had a massive heart attack and died before being brought back to life only to die again, come back and haunt me and yell at me all you want. I deserve it. But when you yell at me for playing a song you don’t like, it’s a good bet I’ll let you know I don’t appreciate it.

Nonetheless, after the brief dressing down I received last night, I bit my tongue, loaded up a classic rock playlist into the computer, and walked over the bar in an effort to cool down. I was pissed, but I was gonna choose my battles. Walking away was my way of letting it go.

I sat at the bar next to a friend. I had a beer as the playlist  played and then fell into conversation. Not really thinking it was a big deal, I remained away from the front counter and the DJ computer for awhile. Apparently I stayed away too long. The owner came over and asked if there was a reason why I disappeared. I responded that I loaded up a long list of songs and came to sit down. I was then told, “You don’t work here any more.”

Fired. Fired for playing a song.

The song I played? “Wishing Well” by Terence Trent D’Arby.

Apparently pot-smoking, meth-snorting, gun-toting gangbangers in Cadillac Escalades are driving around the city looking for bowling alleys that play a lot of songs by mildly androgynous singer-songwriters from the late 80’s.