Monday, February 13, 2017

Concrete Clete And Don The Bridge - Spinning In Their Graves

Doing some research for a story for my part-time job with Public News Service, I ran across several reliable reports indicating that at least half of Wisconsin’s roads are substandard. Not that you could tell from the concrete and steel extravaganzas like the recent work in Madison, pictured above, re-engineering and rebuilding the Beltline – Verona Road interchange.

They must have poured a million cubic yards of concrete rebuilding that monstrosity. I drive through that interchange three or four times every week. It’s now far safer, easier to navigate, and quicker. But it meant two years of constantly changing lane assignments and bewildered drivers who couldn't figure out where to go, which exit to take.

However, if you drive just a few miles outside of Madison, and all the new interchanges that have been built on the Beltline in the past decade, you’ll find roads that are literally falling apart. News stories abound from counties which are actually considering going back to gravel roads, ala Iowa, because they can’t maintain their paved roads.

This is a topic that grinds the gears of a lot of rural Wisconsinites, who see the untold millions of dollars being spent on freeway interchanges in Madison and Milwaukee, and the big road bucks spent in the Fox Valley, while their own county roads are disintegrating. It fuels the rural/urban divide that’s dominated politics in the Badger state for the past decade or so.

A bit of history.

So far as I’m concerned, the biggest visionary when it comes to roads in Wisconsin is Tommy G. Thompson, the state’s most-popular-ever Governor, who in 1988 championed his “Corridors 2020” plan, to improve Wisconsin’s roads -and I mean roads all over the state-  with a goal of helping the state’s businesses and tourism flourish. When I moved back to Wisconsin from Los Angeles in 1988, Highway 151, the road from Madison to the place where I was born and raised - the Fox Valley - was mostly two-lane concrete, and it was falling apart.

Now, of course, 151 is a divided four-lane thoroughfare from Dubuque to Fond du Lac. Tommy’s vision was for good, safe roads, in every part of the state, to help farmers and merchants get their products to market.

On my way up to the Fox Valley last week, I passed through the construction zone on I-41 where they’re rebuilding the entire I-41-441 interchange (above). One thing is certain; our state’s traffic engineers are in love with those “flyover” ramps. They’re everywhere along I-41 from Oshkosh to Green Bay. Years ago, when the Highway 441 bridge over Little Lake Butte des Mortes was built, we called it “The Polish Connection” because it linked Higway 41 with the town and city of Menasha, home to a lot of ‘sconnies of proud Polish heritage.

Now, the interchange is a huge tangle of flyover ramps, connector ramps, lane dividers, and enough concrete and steel to build a medium-size city.

The photo above was the bane of my existence for a couple years – the Marquette interchange in Milwaukee, a hopeless tangle of roads and exits, similar to what they’re now doing with the Zoo interchange in Milwaukee. Every time we’d visit my son and his wife and our granddaughter, when they lived in Milwaukee, I’d have to navigate this concrete monstrosity. Even as one who cut his teeth on southern California freeways, I would white-knuckle it as I had to go through the Zoo interchange construction, and then battle for lane-changes through the Marquette interchange.

Politicians in this state have evolved from public servants with a part-time job in the legislature in Madison, to full-time diners at the public trough, secure in their posts because of the worst gerrymandering in the nation, and with no fear of being defeated by an opponent from the other party. The guv, who is constantly running either for President or his next term, is an ideologue who thinks it’s OK to borrow, borrow, borrow for road construction projects, but God forbid he should agree to raise the gas tax a few cents to help maintain roads in rural Wisconsin, lest some future challenger say “he RAISED taxes!!!”

Even members of Governor Walker’s own party are now starting to realize the shortsightedness of this inane partisanship when it comes to our state’s infrastructure, and there are clear signs of unrest among the Republican ranks.

Our state has a tradition of elected leaders who made their reputation with roads and bridges. Back in the early 60’s state representative Cletus Vanderperren proudly wore the nickname “Concrete Clete” because of his propensity to support every project the state’s road-builders would come up with. In 1967, Don Tilleman ran for mayor of Green Bay on the platform that it was time to build a bridge to connect the east and west side of Titletown. People called him “Don The Bridge Tilleman” and now, the Mason Street Bridge in Green Bay bears his name.

Concrete Clete and Don The Bridge are rolling in their graves, disgusted that a state once so progressive in building infrastructure now can only seem to throw its resources at building monstrous interchanges around the state’s bigger cities, while allowing the rest of our rural roads and bridges to crumble.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Another Nail In The Coffin Of Radio News

When I moved from Los Angeles to Madison in 1988, the group of radio stations I worked for, and bought an ownership stake in, had an 8-person news gathering operation. So did two other Madison radio companies. And Wisconsin Public Radio had a large and active radio news gathering operation. All told, about 30 people were involved in gathering news for Madison radio.

Those days, of course, are long gone. Now, a handful of radio news people are left, including folks like my friend Teri Barr, who now works alongside my former colleague Jimmy McGaw in the morning on WOLX-FM. And former colleague Robin Colbert, who’s still doing the news thing for the WIBA stations.

Radio news. The first department to be cut when radio broadcasters have to tighten the belt another notch.

Lest I be accused of painting with too broad a brush, there are still radio groups, outside Madison and Milwaukee, that underwrite a decent, if less robust than a decade ago, local news gathering operation. One of them was the Woodward Broadcast Group, headquartered in Dubuque, which owns a half-dozen radio stations including WHBY-AM in Appleton.

WHBY (which stands for “Where Happy Boys Yodel”, a story for another time) was the station I grew up listening to in the 50’s and 60’s. When a blizzard would hit the Fox Valley, I had my little transistor radio set to WHBY in the early morning, hoping to hear the money phrase: “Hortonville Schools will be closed today.”

Mom still lives in her lakeside home in Hortonville. So when I drive from Madison to visit her, after I get through the speed-trap in Rosendale and leave Highway 26, just south of Oshkosh, to pick up what’s now called Interstate 41, I tune in WHBY to find out what’s going on.

At least, I used to.

But not last week Thursday, when I went up to visit mom – who is now 89 – and take her to lunch. I didn’t tune in WHBY because I’m mad at them. A few weeks ago, in their latest purge, they handed walking papers to an old friend and former colleague, Rick Schuh. Downsized. Expense cutting move. Whichever euphemism you prefer.

This is Rick, his wife Melissa, and their young family. I expropriated this picture from Rick’s Facebook page and I hope he doesn’t mind. But I wanted to put a face on this rant, to show you the kind of people who are now becoming extinct: radio news people.

With Rick's untimely exit from WHBY go years and years of knowledge and experience covering Wisconsin news,not to be replaced. Rick’s covered everything from the Teresa Halbach murder case (the trial of Steven Avery and his nephew) to city council and school board meetings all over the Valley to severe weather outbreaks to bad car wrecks. All in a day’s work.

And, I’m happy to report, Rick landed on his feet quite quickly after being thrown under the bus after his many years of exemplary work at WHBY, and is now in the financial services industry. No more 16-hour work days, long nights of covering council and board meetings. Rick traded that in for a regular, predictable schedule and a reliable paycheck. Rick’s a smart and personable guy. He’ll do well.

I grew up relying on morning radio news to tell me what was important, whether it was a news story, a sports score, or a school closing. My kids got that info from the TV set in their bedroom. And now we get it from our smart phone or iPad. Who knows what my grandkids will be using.

Another mile down the road, another page of history turning, another nail in the coffin. Pretty soon all we’ll be left with is “fake news” and “alternative facts”.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Where Have Ye Gone, Tommy?

The first thing I heard when I flipped on the car radio this morning was Tommy Thompson, speaking/yelling in Waukesha last night, telling the crowd that it was time for everybody to get on the Trump Train.

A little bit of me died when I heard that audio clip.

I was worried when Tommy threw his support behind the Tea People several years ago.

The photo above, from the Madison newspaper Isthmus, shows Tommy at a Tea People rally in Madison a few years ago, the Tea Party flag flapping in the breeze behind him.

But hearing the audio clip of Tommy this morning made me abandon hope for Tommy.
When I moved from Los Angeles to Madison in the summer of 1988, Tommy was governor.

And he kept getting re-elected. History will show, I believe, that Tommy was the most popular state governor. Ever.

He built roads and bridges. Not just in Milwaukee and Madison, but all over the state. He tried to move people from welfare to work by giving them opportunities to get educated. He supported mass transit.

He surrounded himself with smart people – some of them, “libruls”. UW people. He supported the UW. He was a cheerleader for the UW, and many of our state’s other venerable institutions – and pro sports teams.

He sat down with people who did not share his political views and listened to them. Many times, he changed his mind – or modified his views.

He governed. He got things done.

When his party asked him to resign as Governor and go to Washington for a cabinet position with George Bush, he cried at his farewell party
People assume that I’m a Democrat, a liberal, or a progressive. I’m not. I used to say I’m a Tommy Thompson Republican; then I’d have to qualify it by explaining not the Tommy Thompson who jumped aboard the Tea Ship, or who ran against Tammy Baldwin for U.S. Senate, but the Tommy Thompson of the 90’s.

Now, I just say “I’m an independent”, and that’s the truth. Because Tommy has gone somewhere that I don’t understand, that I don’t like, and, I’m quite frankly, disgusted.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Sad Tale Of Brendan Dassey

First of all, I don’t know if Steven Avery killed Teresa Halbach. I’m not sure we ever will know who brutally took her life in 2005. I’m not one of those who immediately jumped on the “Avery is Innocent” bandwagon after watching the entire Netflix Docudrama “Making A Murderer”.  Too many questions remain unanswered.

But what I did see in the hours and hours I invested in watching that sad tale is how flawed the criminal justice system can be. Particularly when it comes to dealing with people like Brendan Dassey. And even after ten years of imprisonment after being convicted of helping his uncle kill Halbach, I’m saddened to think that Dassey’s worst days may still be ahead.

Last Friday a Federal Judge overturned Dassey’s conviction. The judge didn’t say Dassey was innocent; the judge didn’t say Dassey should immediately be released. What the judge did say was that the so-called “confession” the cops bullied out of Dassey was bogus.

And since Dassey’s conviction was as a result of this bogus “confession”, those who might appeal the Federal Judge’s ruling have nothing to stand on. There’s no evidence that connects Dassey with the murder of Halbach. None. No photos, no DNA, no nothing.

Those who saw the interrogation of Dassey by watching “Making A Murderer” saw a kid, a 16-year-old special ed student apparently without the mental faculty to be scared, telling the cops what they wanted to hear – after repeatedly asking for his mother to be present. Dassey had no idea what was at stake here, and any reasonable person watching that horrible browbeating would conclude that the kid wanted his mom and would say anything the cops wanted to hear, in many cases, just parroting back the words they essentially put in his mouth.

Then, after enduring that disgusting interrogation, Dassey’s first lawyer, Len Kachinsky, threw his client under the bus and essentially functioned as an agent for the prosecution. That much was also clearly apparent to anyone who watched the Netflix series. Kachinsy was working for the prosecution, not for his client.

The Federal Judge’s ruling can be appealed within 90 days, and I suspect we’ll know shortly whether that’s going to happen or not. It’s also a reasonable assumption that an appeal will fail, barring any remarkable new evidence, and that Dassey will be released from prison.

That’s why I say his worst days may be yet to come.

He will be released with no education, no training, no real job prospects, and extremely limited social services support. He will, in no way, be prepared to navigate life as a 26-year-old man. His mom will not be able to provide the array of psychological and other rehabilitative services her son will need.

He certainly didn’t get any such help in prison. And he won’t get it when he’s released.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

A Good Gig, Producing Good Radio

A friend of mine, Jennifer, sent me a note the other day, proud that her son, who started his radio career in Waupaca, had just taken a new job with a radio station in Fond du Lac. The fellow her son replaced in Fond du Lac had been with that station for more than two decades.

One of Jennifer’s workmates threw shade (as they say nowadays) on the man my friend’s son replaced, implying that he must not have been good enough to work at a station in a larger market and his career had stalled there.

Two things that get me wound up easily are the idea that people who work in smaller radio markets aren’t as talented as people who work in larger markets, and people who say things like “oh, you’re in radio – do you think you’ll ever make it to TV?”

For those who don’t know me, I’ve worked in both radio and TV, and in markets small and large: the smallest was the Oshkosh/Appleton/Fox Valley market, and the largest was Los Angeles. And there were a few big markets in between, before I landed in Madison. And I loved working in TV, but my heart is in radio. It was fun working in the nation’s second-largest market, LA, but even more fun in Madison.

One of my favorite stories about radio and talent is one that’s quite personal. Circumstances were such in 1988 that I was compelled to relocate from Los Angeles to the Madison area. It’s too long a story to go into here, but when the move back to Wisconsin - where I was born and raised - became inevitable, I called the CEO of the broadcast group I’d worked for in Oshkosh years ago, and asked if there might be anything for me at the stations the group owned in Madison.

He said the legendary, heritage AM station which they owned in Madison – which used to be called WISM-AM – had transitioned from playing Top-40 hits to what was then a relatively new format: talk radio. Perhaps I could help bolster the station’s news image, which had been impeccable in the WISM days, but had lost a bit of luster in the new incarnation as WTDY-AM.

The days of Wayne Wallace, P.K. Powers, Bill Short, and other household names from WISM were gone. The irascible Mark Belling – a co-worker from my Oshkosh days who now holds forth in Milwaukee and frequently subs for the world’s biggest blowhard, Rush Limbaugh – had assembled an eager and talented news team for the station, but they didn’t really have an anchor with “gravitas”, according to the CEO. He suggested I might be able to help there.

To shorten the story and keep it moving along, I took a redeye flight from L-A to Madison, got off the plane, rented a car, and put the radio on 1480 AM. The first voice I heard was a woman named Toni Denison, who was doing a newscast. I immediately thought to myself “this woman could easily be working in Los Angeles.” She had a well-modulated alto voice, delivered at an appropriate rate, enunciated clearly, had great vocal inflection, and kept the newscast moving. In other words, easily major market talent. That was my first impression, having never laid eyes on her. She had big-market talent.

Full disclosure: she and I got married a few years after I met her.

As I listened across the radio dial to the Madison market on that first trip in from L-A 28 years ago, I heard a vibrant chorus of talented, professional newscasters, and quite a few on-air personalities who had, to my ear, the presence and luster to be working in one of the nation’s largest markets.

Back then, Madison had dozens of radio news people. The group I worked for had 8 full-timers and several part-timers. So did the group my friend Jennifer worked for. And there was another group that had a similar number of news folks. Public radio in Madison had – and still has – an active radio news gathering operation.  But of the three commercial groups that had active, competing news departments back in the late 80’s – well, I’m not sure, but I think there are about two full-time radio news people at commercial stations in Madison now. It could actually be one. My apologies if I’m failing to count someone who does news, and only news, full-time.

As usual, I digress.

The point my friend Jennifer made in her note to me was that the gentleman in Fond du Lac who spent more than two decades at the same station, in the same market, was talented enough to land a job in a much larger market. It’s probably because he didn’t WANT to. It’s far more likely that, as is the case with so many talented radio folks, he “found a good gig where he could produce good radio for good people”. Those are Jennifer’s exact words, far more eloquent than I’m capable of writing.

Some very talented radio folks, making good radio in smaller markets, could easily go through the steps of sending out their resume and CD, landing a job in a larger market, packing up all their stuff and moving, and doing it again in a year or two until they finally figured out they're where they want to be and they’re tired of moving.

And some have different aspirations: they realize they’re in a good gig, where the paychecks don’t bounce, they have reasonable freedom to make good radio without some corporate tyrant breathing down your neck, and they can send down roots, get married, buy a home, raise a family, and be an integral part of the community.

Take a look at the people doing news reporting on the Madison TV stations. They’re talented young folks, by and large, who come and go. Madison, for them, is a stopping point on a career that will take them around the nation. They’ll move every year or so, and mispronounce the local names, exposing their lack of experience in the community. And then there are those - in most cases, the news anchors, but there are a handful of reporters - who’ve been around for years and are established members of the community.  You know their names. They’re the ones who know how to pronounce cities like Shawano, Waukesha, Oconomowoc, and Ripon.

You can’t do the same in Madison radio any more, because there’s only one group owner left in commercial radio that even bothers to have a “news department”. My former colleague, Robin Colbert, is the news director there, and now that her dad, John, has retired, Robin is, I believe, the only full-time news person on the staff. A few of the FM stations have part-time “sidekicks” who read the news, but don’t actually go out and gather it.

And I know a lot of radio and TV news folks in Wisconsin, working in our state’s many small markets, who put in long hours at city council and county board and school board meetings at night and work a long shift during the day covering news, writing news, and reporting news, who have the talent needed to land a job in one of the nation’s largest markets. But they love what they’re doing and have roots in their community.

There is still, as my friend Jennifer wrote to me, a magic to small market radio – and TV, as far as that goes. Some of these folks are the shining star of a staff which consists largely of underpaid young people just learning the trade. Some of them will move on to jobs in the big markets, where every staff position is held by a highly talented broadcaster.

For some, it’s the journey, not the destination. Kudos. Here’s hoping you have a great career doing what you love, and that leaving your job is a decision you’ll make – and not have it made for you by some clueless overlord.

Monday, July 25, 2016

A Day At The Ball Park

First of all, there are a lot of people who should stay home. Just not go to the game. Why pay a hundred bucks (or more) for a great seat behind home plate and then bitch about everything from the heat and humidity to the pace of the game?

More on that later.

It’s actually been a couple years since my bride and I ventured to the ball park for a game. In our advancing state of decrepitude, we often decide that the lounger in front of the 66-inch HDTV is the best seat for watching a major league baseball game. But this year, my wife said she’d like to see a Cubs-Brewers game for her birthday, so yesterday we packed the cooler into the venerable road warrior SUV and headed to Milwaukee.

The first mistake was forgetting how miserable the traffic is, with all the construction going on once you get about 8 miles from Miller Park. Even though we’ve made the trek to Milwaukee lots of times in the past few months, to visit our son, his wife, and our granddaughter – before they moved to Brussels, Belgium a few weeks ago – we spaced out the construction factor, and wound up spending more than an hour going from Exit 300 on I-94 to exit 308A. That’s right. 72 minutes to go 8 miles.

We like to get to the ball park early and watch batting practice and all the other stuff that never gets televised before they throw the first pitch. But, that went out the window with the traffic jam. However, we were able to get into the ball park well in advance of the first pitch, to see all the honorary first pitches (there were three “first” pitches Sunday) and to grab a brat and a soda before the action started.

My wife and I might have a beer or two during the course of a game, but we agreed that with 92 degree heat and a dew point of 74, water would be the beverage of choice. Maybe a soda. So after we chowed down the pre-game brat, the water vendor made his way down the steps of Section 118 and my bride got a 20-ounce lemonade.

This was at 12:52, 18 minutes before the first pitch. I note this only because that was the ONLY time the man selling water and lemonade made his way through our section right behind home plate. Oh, the beer man and the Long Island Iced Tea man traversed the steps at least once every half-inning during the game, but the water/lemonade man did not come through ONCE during the game. Note to Brewers: this is a big bowl of WRONG.

Did I mention it was 92 degrees with a dew point of 74???  (A dew point of 65 is considered uncomfortable; 70 is tropical; I’m not sure what they say about dew points higher than 70, except maybe “miserably and unbearably humid”.) And the water man doth not cometh.

Most adults are aware that there really is nothing you can do to change the weather. If you can’t deal with the heat and humidity, stay home in the a/c. But for a particular group of women seated right behind us, the entire game for them consisted of bitching loudly about how hot and humid it was, and how slowly this particular game was progressing, and how they hated baseball and hated being there. Not at a voice volume you’d expect regarding personal chat during a ball game, but in a tone of voice loud enough to be heard by half the people in Section 118.

And one of the guys with this group of women was the unavoidable obnoxious drunk, one of hundreds (if not thousands) who are the bane of baseball fans at every game. There’s at least one in every section. In the THIRD inning, after he’d yelled obnoxious crap for an hour, he tapped me on the shoulder and said “who’s pitching?” I said “Lester”. (Why he didn’t know, in the bottom of the third inning, gives more evidence to the argument that some people just shouldn’t go to ball games.) After I told him it was Lester, he stood up and wobbled a bit, and screamed at the top of his lungs “Come on Lester! Jeezus!!!!!”.

One other thing about the “game day experience” that I’d forgotten, since it’s been a couple years, is that there is constant noise from the PA system during the game. There is no time, except when a pitch is actually being thrown, that there is not noise emanating from the PA system. Tiny snippets of songs for the “walk up music” and even smaller snippets of music-like noise BETWEEN PITCHES. Constantly. At a hundred decibels or more.

When you watch a ball game at home, you don’t hear this constant din. The TV and Radio audio guys adjust their systems so it’s not as intrusive as it is when you’re actually sitting in the stands.

In the fourth inning of Sunday’s game, there was some long, drawn out on-field controversy. Joe Madden came out of the Cubs dugout and confronted the umpiring crew chief, a veteran ump by the name of Feildin Culbreth (yes, I know who a lot of the umps are) and the two engaged in a long discussion with a lot of pointing. Culbreth was working 3rd base for Sunday’s game, and the two kept pointing across the infield toward first base.

While all this was going on, there was nothing from the PA system to tell the fans what was going on; no nuggets of information; no insight; not even after the incident was settled, ten minutes later. Just the annoying beeps and boops of music-like noise. So, when you WANT the public address system to function as a PUBLIC ADDRESS system, and tell you why there’s this huge delay on the field while Joe Madden and Feildin Culbreth are going back and forth, there’s not a word.

Despite the uncomfortable heat and humidity, it was an interesting game with fascinating twists and turns, with the Brewers blowing a big lead and the Cubs rallying in the 7th inning and holding on for the win. The sausage race in the middle of the 6th inning is always fun, and there are diverting and somewhat interesting features on the giant center field scoreboard to entertain the 40-thousand-plus fans during the long TV commercial breaks between half-innings.

It was a good thing we’d tossed several bottles of water into the ice chest in our venerable SUV. After we left the game, before we were at the Waukesha County line on westbound I-94, my wife had already downed nearly a full quart of water. We had been sweating profusely during the entire game, and knew we needed to rehydrate.

Despite the many negative things I’ve mentioned in this rant, we agreed that we had fun going to the game. That’s what really counts.

Oh, and the picture at the top of the rant?  That guy is the game scout for the Arizona Diamondbacks. So, when the Brewers play their series against the D-Backs this week, this guy is the one who will have provided the D-Backs with his analysis of what the Brewers do.

It’s all part of the experience you can get only at the ball park. So, yes, we’ll go again. And I’m sure we’ll have fun.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Everything But A Lake

Every June for the past five years I’ve made the 325-mile trip from The Morrissey Compound in Madison to my friend Tom Plummer’s house in Lake City, Iowa. It’s a place similar to Hortonville, the small Wisconsin village where I grew up. I chuckle every time I turn off Iowa Highway 4 at Highway 175 and hit the city limits. The sign says “Lake City: Everything But A Lake”. Iowa humor, I guess.

Tom is the music man of Lake City; once again this year, his high school Jazz Band won the Iowa State Jazz Championships. Tom has more state championships than just about anybody, with the possible exception of his mentor, Larry “Boomer” Kisor, who established the kind of dynasty at Sioux City North High School that Tom has at Southern Cal High School in Lake City.

For those who haven’t followed my annual reports on these treks west through tall corn country, Tom is a fellow tuba player who grew up listening to me (and a bunch of guys a lot better than me) play tuba with various bands on LP albums. Remember vinyl LP albums? Big, flat, round black discs that preceded CD’s.

Back around 2009 or so, Tom tracked me down via Facebook, and after establishing via social media that we have a zillion other things in common besides tuba playing, in 2011 our friendship changed from virtual to actual, when I made the first trip to his house for a weekend of watching baseball and having a few beers and playing tuba.

In the seven years that we’ve been friends, we’ve both gone through a number of life changes. Tom met a wonderful woman, Wilma, a couple years ago, and got remarried. Both my kids got married and both have given my long-suffering wife and me grandchildren. Tom's son, Lee, married his girlfriend Rachel last December. Two great "kids" and both fine musicians. Life moves along.

Tom and I are both dog-lovers, and one of the first things that happens when I arrive at Tom and Wilma’s house is the annual tug-of-war with Tom’s dog Hank. That’s little Tiger looking on. We watch Cubs baseball and do some catch-up visiting after I arrive early Friday afternoon.

A lot of people who know me now have no idea that for years, I was a musician, and did hundreds of TV shows, dozens of recording sessions, and toured domestically and internationally with various groups. My mentor, Ernie Broeniman, another tuba player, opened the musical doors for me when he took me under his wing at Hortonville High School in 1962, and for more than 20 years I performed regularly. Then, broadcasting became my sole focus.

I sold my “axe”, as musicians call their instrument, and broadcasting took me all around the country – again. When I met Tom, he inspired me to buy a horn, practice, and Tom has even made it possible for me to do some playing again.

This time, it was once again with Malek’s Fishermen Band, a first-rate territory band that books out of Garner, Iowa. Syl Malek founded the band with his brother Ed in the 1930’s; and two generations of Maleks still play with the band: Bob and his son Eric, and frequently, Eric’s wife Kimberly. The gig was at the famous Hessen Haus in downtown Des Moines.

Tom and I loaded up a tuba, a trumpet, and a bunch of other stuff in my venerable Road Warrior SUV in the middle of the afternoon Saturday and we headed southeast for a two-hour trip from Lake City to Des Moines. Since my regular gig-playing days are long gone – the last regular gig I had was a marathon recording session in 1984 where I laid down about 28 tracks for two LP albums – a lot of what I do now consists mainly of playing along with CD’s in my music room at home.

Tom and I talked on our way to Des Moines about “the gig experience”, and how it’s really impossible to recreate that experience when you’re sitting behind your horn in your music room, playing along with CD’s. There’s a whole gestalt surrounding the gig experience, from the trip to the venue, the load-in, to the setup, the mike checks, to the actual gig itself and the camaraderie and musicianship involved, to the load-out and the trip home.

Above is a nice shot Tom took of me at the gig, sitting behind Tom’s horn. Tuba guys are used to photos like this – try as you might, that big horn usually hides us. But you can see Charlie, the keyboard man, that’s Dale Baker behind the drum kit; Bob Malek is the distinguished gentleman in the center, and at the right, that’s Eric Malek, strapping on a classic concertina which once belonged to Elmer Scheid.

For those not familiar with old-time music, the drummer, keyboard player, and tuba guy often do not have sheet music to guide them. Like the concertina player, they know the tunes from memory. For some of the ensemble tunes, there’s often a “chord sheet” for the bass player, and you improvise a bass line based on the chord structure and progressions of the melody.

I have now had to face the hard fact that my playing these days will never be near as good as it was back in the 60’s through the 80’s. I took way too many years off, not touching a horn from 1988 to 2011, and that 23-year break – along with a life-threatening bout with pneumonia in 1995 – has taken a steep toll. My “road chops” are long gone, and my lungs just don’t move as much air as they used to.

As I’ve said to Tom many times, it’s a blast to be able to play again, but the frustrating part is not being able to do it anywhere near as well as I used to be able to. Tom was kind enough to make some videos, and here’s one on which I’m playing almost passably. There’s another video Tom made – which I will NOT link to – of me attempting to play “Echoes In The Hills” with Eric Malek, and resorting to the dreaded “search bass” mode, where the tuba player just can’t figure out the chord changes and clumsily plays various notes looking for the dominant chord (or even the tonic or sub-dominant chord) with no success.

On the other end of the performance spectrum, my friend Tom plays every tune flawlessly, with tremendous tone and range and really interesting improvised bass lines. And Bob and Eric Malek, whether they’re playing trumpet or trombone, blend perfectly. They have mastered many styles of performance, and it’s a real treat to hear those two perform perfectly together on song after song.

A big part of the gig experience is the crowd. At the Hessen Haus on this particular Saturday night, there are a small core of dancers who are there to start the night, but then an hour or so into the gig, a bunch of college kids – from Drake University, or Iowa State, or the U of Iowa, I’m not sure which – come in to drink boots of German beer and they really liven the place up. They hoot and holler and dance, and that really fuels the band.

Eric, who fronts the band, has fun with the crowd by making outrageously false statements after some of the tunes. For example, the band will play a Dixieland standard like “When The Saints Go Marchin’ In” and Eric will say “another great tune from the fabulous Broadway musical ‘Guys and Dolls’”. Once he followed a classic old-time waltz with the announcement that it was from “South Pacific”. He turns to me afterward and says “they have no idea!” and we share a laugh. That’s another part of the gig experience that just can’t be duplicated!

It makes no difference what kind or style of music you’re playing at a live gig – rock, country, old-time, whatever – a good crowd absolutely makes the band sound better. You feel the energy and your playing goes up a notch. After the college kids move on to their next adventure for the night, a bridal party comes in, and merriment ensues. They get right into the spirit and sing and dance along with the band.

Another part of the gig experience is the repartee among the musicians during the engagement. Stories are told during the short breaks between sets, observations are made, jokes are told, pranks are played. During one of the breaks, Eric and Tom are talking about how musicians speak of each other. Eric says “you know you can’t play for squat when people say ‘oh, he’s a really great guy’ or something like that.” Tom agrees heartily, saying unless the first words to describe a musician are about his or her skill, they’re not that good a player.

The four-hour gig comes to a close, and the drudgery of packing up and loading out begins. Eric takes some pictures for the band’s Facebook page, and he took the picture above of “the tuba guys”, Tim and Tom. The van is loaded, good-bye’s are said, and another gig is in the books.

Since my night vision is so crappy the last few years, Tom gets behind the wheel of my venerable Road Warrior SUV and we start the two-hour journey back to Lake City. It’s a long, desolate drive through miles and miles of flat land with only a few towns to break the vistas of corn and soybeans, but Tom and I talk non-stop through the Iowa night. A clear sky and a nearly full moon are our companions.

We talk about life, our kids, our wonderful spouses, and, of course, about music. About how in the world of old-time, like many other idioms, artful performance depends on the “feel” of the musicians playing the tune, and how it’s really impossible to notate that feel. We talk about how Bob and Eric Malek play the old Blossom Waltz with an “eastern Wisconsin” interpretation, like the old Bernie Roberts band or the Don Schleis Band played it. You simply cannot put notes on manuscript paper that reflect the way they interpret the melody.

Whether it’s jazz, Dixieland, big-band, or old-time, so much of the performance depends on the stylistic nuances – the rhythmic feel – which simply cannot be put into musical notes on paper. Sometimes it’s just ahead of, or just slightly behind the beat, that gives the feel; sometimes it’s bending a note a certain way, as in blues; but that’s the kind of thing that separates “he’s a great player” from “he’s a great guy”.

Finally we arrive in Lake City and pull into the parking lot behind Tom’s new band room at Southern Cal High School and put the tuba and trumpet and the other stuff away. Then it’s back to Tom and Wilma’s house, where I’ll grab a few hours of sleep and start the six hour trip back to Madison as soon as the sun comes up. This year, I’ll have to miss the Sunday noon tradition of beef roast and veggies in the crock pot.

Next year, perhaps. 

But one thing’s certain: it’ll be fun, and we’ll make more great memories.