We Are Stardust …

Tomorrow, June 22, marks the 50th anniversary of the release of Joni Mitchell’s masterpiece “Blue.”

There’s been so much attention brought to this musical event that Joni’s own archive site crashed due to the sheer numbers of people wishing to pay tribute.

I was fortunate enough to have my friend Leslie Kasperson take me to see her at the tiny Gene Autry Museum Theater at Griffith Park around 1995, but I really only came to truly appreciate this record in the last few years after I heard Morgan James’ cover of “Case of You.” I fell so in love with MJ that I had to drag Linda to Oregon to see her at Mississippi Studios in Portland.

My dear friend Jodi does a beautifully stirring version as well.


… The Act You’ve Known For All These Years

1967. 1968. 1969. 1970.

1971.

Formative years for me. I was 11, 12, 13, 14 and 15.

Coming up in Detroit in the late 1960s we played baseball all summer, hockey in the winter and records all year long. Everybody I knew bought, sold, traded, borrowed and stole vinyl. When something significant came out (Beatles White Album, Zeppelin 1, Tommy, Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs) we carried the album with us wherever we went, along with a frisbee and a bag of weed.

At my house, which because my mom worked nights was the gathering place for degenerates, dope fiends and guitar-god wanna-bes, we played records on a General Electric console stereo. On any given night 10 or 12 kids would show up with 2 or three albums. Grand Funk, The Stooges, Allman Bros, Johny Winter, Edgar Winter, Ten Years After, Savoy Brown ~ Jimi.

We would fill the house with bong smoke and play those records over and over until they were so scratched that you could barely listen to them. Then we would all pitch in to air the place out, empty the ashtrays and mop up the spilled bong water before mom got home.

Ester never knew any better and all that music got embedded in my DNA.

Now, 50+ years later many of those albums are being re-mastered, re-issued as box sets and celebrated as relics of a simpler time, when music was the only art form that mattered.

So significant was the era that Apple has created a docuseries called “1971: The Year that Music Changed Everything,” which is pretty good by the way.

I’ve actually been reliving the music of that time for the past few years. I think I started with the “White Album” which came out in 1968 and still holds me in a hypnotic embrace as what I think of as the best musical recording of all time in any genre. I played all four sides again and again, just like we did in 68-69. Then I did the same thing with Tommy, by The Who. Then The Soft Parade by the Doors. Let it Bleed. Electric Ladyland.

All these albums are tattooed on my brain. I still have them all mostly memorized yet, I’m discovering new aspects of them at the same time.

Lately, for a few weeks actually but I need to stop now, I’ve been playing Tumbleweed Connection. I always knew that the record album was a concept album with an American West and South theme. But I never knew about Bernie Taupin’s obsession with the Civil War. I didn’t pay very much attention to the poetry behind what I knew were beautiful melodies brought by Elton.

I realize now what a masterpiece that record is.

So many others from that era that I would characterize that way as well. Aqualung, Layla, Live at the Fillmore East, A Saucerful of Secrets, All Things Must Pass, A Question of Balance, John Barleycorn Must Die, After the Gold Rush,Tea for the Tillerman, Love it to Death, Who’s Next, the list … goes … on.

And possibly, above them all is Joni. and her prize, Blue.

I like what David Crosby said recently about the album in the LAT, “Blue” is the best singer-songwriter record ever made. I think it’s better than the Beatles. It’s better than anything Bob Dylan did, better than anything from either of the Pauls, McCartney and Simon. It’s better than anybody, anywhere. This record, this batch of songs, is the pinnacle of singer-songwriter ability. Hands down. No contest.

Brandi Carlile said of A Case of You, “The remarkable thing about this poem is that Joni has convinced us all to live inside of it while never sparing us a single detail. “I could drink a case of you and I would still be on my feet” is the most beautiful and unique declaration of love I can think of. It can mean many things to many people. I think of my wife and daughters when I hear or sing it. My love for them is insatiable and yet I can keep my feet underneath me because, for me, true love has been stabilizing. I’ve been known to find myself on the floor a few times too, though.
This song has met many of us in our darkest moments and walked us down the aisle, even sent us to the other side of existence. We’re so lucky to have it with us.

Joni Mitchell is a national treasure of both Canada and the U.S.

We are lucky to have her.

I almost believe that the pictures are all I can feel

He’s standing on a dilapidated dock that barely reaches into a mostly frozen lake surrounded by forest. His hands are deep in the pockets of baggy trousers. He wears a light, checkered jacket over a white, button-down shirt and a stylish fedora cocked slightly to the side.

He also wears a bit of a villainous grin that belies the fact that he probably just eluded the authorities by crossing the Canadian border and is now safely beyond the reach of the law in Detroit, who may have been pursuing him for any number of crimes ranging from bootlegging to solicitation to failure to appear to unpaid restitution to delinquency of child support.

BLUE, BLUE WINDOWS BEHIND THE STARS

The photograph is affecting. The location feels surreptitious and Fargo-like. The dock, so shoddy that it would not likely hold his weight were it not for the frozen lake surrounding it.

The mysterious grin.

The man in the photo has many names.

William Myrl Estel Postlewait-Gapen, born September 29, 1902 in Iola, Kansas. My grandfather.

I wish there was somebody still around who could either confirm or deny the myriad stories I’ve been told about his escapades. My dad and all of my aunts and uncles are gone and they took their secrets of Myrl with them.

He died a young man, it’s unknown when but before I was born, almost certainly in a plane crash that he was piloting. That disappearance may or may not have happened in the Bermuda Triangle while flying a couple to the Bahamas or maybe it happened over Lake Huron or Lake St. Claire while enroute to rendezvous with a Canadian bootlegging partner or a favorite prostitute.

Very little is known about Myrl in my family. There are some stories but despite having at least 7 children that we know of, nobody ever wanted to talk about him. My aunt Elsie, his third known child, just said, “He wasn’t a very nice person.”

My father Glenn, Myrl’s 4th known child, worshipped him, even changing his name from Postlewait to Gapen when Myrl decided to do that for unknown reasons in 1942. None of us knows where the name Gapen comes from but the story I remember is that it was from a favorite hooker in Oklahoma.

Perhaps this photograph was taken by my wide-eyed, 17-year-old dad while visiting Myrl at his home on Harsens Island near the St. Clair river that separates Michigan from Canada before heading out for a perch dinner and Carling’s Black Labels at Snoopy’s Dog House on M-29 in Algonac.

Maybe it was taken by Lillian Martin, my grandmother, who he married in Perth, Ontario at age 19 and with whom he had all those previously mentioned kids.

More likely, the photographer was an under-age Canadian runaway standing on a suitcase full of cash that Myrl managed to take receipt of after an exchange of a pickup truck load of Canadian whiskey or Russian mink pelts or African ivory or Mexican children. I think he liked to think of himself as being in the import-export business.

When I look at this photograph, I see a man I never met — that is me.

I REMEMBER WHEN YOU COULD STOP A CLOCK

I discovered this picture while digging through dozens of boxes of prints I have in the rafters of my garage. I’ve been carrying this stuff around for a few decades. Over the years I’ve occasionally rooted through the outtakes of 10 years of working in a tiny black and white newspaper darkroom in downtown Oxnard. But recently someone posted something on Facebook that prompted me to get up on a ladder in search of a specific picture that I knew was buried in there.

But this time, within a few minutes I was distracted by boxes of photographs that were once carried around for decades by my parents.

Of course I’d been through these boxes before but somehow, I was seeing these images from the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s in a different light, as if I was dreaming. I was dreaming that I stumbled on a collection of priceless art by Vivian Maier or Mary Ellen Mark or Dorthea Lange at a garage sale or swap meet. I was moved by every print. I was looking at photos made by a range of cheap cameras available at the time but a fair amount was exposed on 120 film with simple box cameras like a Kodak Brownie Flash Six-20 or maybe a Kodak Duraflex. There was something about the square format, the scalloped edges of the little black and white prints, the faces of post-WWII Americans, recovering from the war, building their lives and their families. Deer hunting. Ice fishing. Picnics.

It was like looking through spacial or temporal boundaries, a worm hole, and it slammed me back to the distant promise of the American dream, now almost out of sight in our rear view mirrors.

Staring into these images I’m transported back to a time when my parents were half the age I am now. Back to the house on Fairground Street that my mother’s father bequeathed to her, that I spent my earliest years in, playing in the basement coal bin, peaking through the polished, maple bannister staircase at the twinkling Christmas tree at 4 a.m., sitting on the front porch spitting watermelon seeds in the dead of summer.

The house my mother sold in 1966 for $15K.

I can smell the lilacs in the yard. Taste the iced tea and Swiss steak and rhubarb. I can hear the Tiger game coming from the car radio and feel the bitter, biting winter wind that numbs your fingers and ears and freezes the mucus in your sinuses.

Or, maybe it’s this.

… WILL YOU STILL FEED ME

Sitting at a dime store Dell computer in La Cañada, CA last week, running 11-year-old Windows 7 for drinks and tips, a colleague asked me, as part of regular office banter, “… Well you and I are probably around the same age huh?” Probing me, the old man who’s the new guy in the room, “I’m 58,” he said.

Obviously, that question was really asking, “Just how the fuck old are you, anyway?” Which commands a response, and that moment — with the 25-year-old, asian, genius girl behind me but just 6 feet from either of us — was for a split second, the first time in my life that I thought about lying about my age. Ridiculous.

“I’m 64,” I said, emphasizing the I’m part in an effort to sound boastful about how startlingly well-preserved and virile and talented and valuable and, relevant I am.

And after having stated, so publicly and with such a healthy amount of hubris, my pronounced advantage of having successfully completed 64 trips around the sun and as such acquired the infinite wisdom that only decades of experience affords us, genius girl said, “Well, you both look great.”

Paul McCartney wrote the song “When I’m 64” when he was 19. Despite being a prodigious Beatles fan this thematically unconnected song, included for some reason on the 1967 album Sgt. Peppers, was never a favorite. For me, ragtime doesn’t mix well with psychedelia.

Still, the iconic album kept the otherwise unmemorable song from sinking into blank unconsciousness. In fact the song has itself become a milestone that pronounces if someone is still bringing you a bottle of wine on your birthday, then “Who could ask for more?”

This past June Paul turned 78. I turned 64 and nobody brought me a bottle of wine.

However, I did receive no less than 5 liters of assorted Irish whiskey. I feel like that transcends the requisite payoff.

So no, I couldn’t ask for more. Most of the people that I knew when I was growing up on Fairground Street did not make it to 64. Many didn’t make it to 24.

MAKES YOU THINK ALL THE WORLD’S A SUNNY DAY

I knew it was time to let a large amount of this stuff go. Did I need thousands of prints of seagulls and beaches and mountains and zoo animals? If I don’t care about this stuff, who ever would?

Sitting in my garage, in 90+ degrees, surrounded by boxes of photographs and negatives from my past, my parents past and even their parents past, and creating a pile that is bound for the landfill there had been a reckoning of sorts.

Coming to terms with a range of emotions, liberation, as I’ll be traveling lighter for all further rotations, and nostalgia. But also, grief, regret, melancholy as well as exhilaration, contentedness, euphoria.

Among the boxes that belonged to my parents, and sprinkled among photos of my grandparents with a huge sheet cake and pictures of my mom and dad giggling in the dining room of our house on Fairground Street, and images of me and my two brothers lying on the floor in front of a giant, wooden cabinet that housed a 12-inch black and white television, there were photographs that my mother had saved through her life. A lot of them were prints of seagulls, beaches, mountains and zoo animals.

Mortality is a funny thing to contemplate. We occupy this planet for such a blip. All the sheet cake moments and zoo animal memories are buried beneath 4.5 billion years worth of cosmic dust spinning around in infinite blackness … while the moon keeps a watchful eye.

I love the final scene in Blade Runner when Rutger Hauer, who plays the replicant Roy Batty, delivers what critic Mark Rowlands described as “Possibly the most moving death soliloquy in cinematic history,’

“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.
Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.
I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate.
All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”

Magic feather

Oddly, I collect weird organic materials from animals. Cat whiskers, deer antlers, bird feathers. I find these things to be magical. I even saved some dreadlocks from my long-time kitty companion Spooky. I like sea shells too but I don’t have a lot of them because I feel like that’s common, even cliche.

I keep these things, maybe in case I ever need to make a potion.

On Tuesday I spent a good part of the day digging in my backyard, fighting with 30-year-old tree roots and heavy, wet clay while trying to expose the entire manifold to my underground sprinkler system.

Actually I spent the better part of Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and today breaking my back digging up and repairing that aging sprinkler system, which has leaks in several locations, and then burying it again.

But at the end of the afternoon on Tuesday, as I was putting shovels away in the garage, I heard the distinct warble warble warble of a dove that had, unseen by me, come in through the open garage door and was now up in the rafters. Actually, there were two of them up there.

Ever since we put feeders in the yard we have a variety of birds and squirrels that come and go and a dule of pudgy doves are among them.

Once I started looking up in the rafters for the cooing dove, one smart dove bolted out through the garage door, wings whistling as he darted across the street, while a second one just tried to fly toward the light coming in through the whirlybird vent in the roof.

Now, this fat and fragile little bugger was stuck in the spinning roof vent and terrified trying to force his fat self though the way-too-small slots in the vent. That was never going to happen and the more he tried the more likely it was that he would shredded by the spinning aluminum blades of the roof vent.

I knew it was a matter of time before a gust of wind would accelerate the spinning and at high velocity would lop his tiny head off splattering dove blood all over the Christmas decorations and boxes and boxes of black and white prints that are essentially outtakes from years spent in a newspaper darkroom in the 1980s.

I knew I had to rescue him, pretty much now.

I also knew that the only ladder I had was a 6-foot step ladder that even if I stood on the absolute top of I’d still be 3-4 feet short of being able to reach into the whirlybird. And even if I could reach it there was not much chance I’d be able to grab the panicked peeper. Plus there was always a possibility of leaving my fingers in there as well.

But, hero that I am, I managed to get my 64-year-old ass on the top step of the ladder and wrap my arms over the 2x4s that make the trusses that hold up the roof. From there I swung my legs, gymnast-like (think Kurt Thomas on the parallel bars) over the lower braces and hoisted myself up to where I could stand, straddling two sections of the truss.

Then, since the wind had died down, I managed to stop the spinning of the vent with one gloved hand and, while balancing on two 2x4s, 12 feet above the concrete garage floor, reach up into the vent with the other gloved hand.

If you’ve ever had a budgie or other pet bird then you know the feeling when you present your hand, horizontally to the birds breast. They’ll usually just hop on. That’s what pet birds do.

Much to my amazement, this little dove just stepped down and right onto my hand.

For a minute.

As soon as I began to lower my hand with the little peeper on it, he decided he’d rather take his chances back up in the whirlybird.

I knew I was going to have to more aggressively just grab his fat ass and on the first try I got hold of his tail and started to lower him out of that predicament. Once I got him to about my shoulder level he freaked and left me with all his tail feathers as he made his way to another part of the garage, lighting on another rafter.

At least he was out of the danger of that buzz saw of a roof vent.

Then, it only took one try. Safely reaching up from the garage floor with a broom he hopped on the bristles and after lowering him further he saw the wide-open garage door and, wings whistling, bolted in the same direction his partner had earlier.

Clearly, he could still fly but I’m not sure how well he could change direction.

And he left me that gift of his tail feathers.

Psychic connection to strychnine poisoning

Ben Namba stood in the living room of his home in the Hobson Heights section of Ventura, his gaze downward, his focus muddled. He rubbed the tip of his index finger sluggishly back and forth on the corner of a console table.

Seeing him up and out of his chair I suggested to his wife Julia that now might be a good time to try to get him to sit on the couch with her. Maybe I could get a natural looking photo of the two of them together.

“Well, that might hard to do,” Julia said. “Maybe you could try to talk to him.”

I was at Ben Namba and Julia Campbell’s home to photograph their 1929, Tudor style house for a story that was to appear in Ventana Monthly magazine, a publication for which I was formerly art director, production manager, designer, principal photographer and webmaster.

Ben, now well into his 80s and suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s disease spends most of his days in a comfortable sunroom, in and out of consciousness, unable to speak, seemingly unaware of his surroundings.

When I arrived Julia gave me a walking tour of the home and said I was free to photograph anywhere in the house and told me let her know if I needed anything. I said I would keep an eye on Ben and wait for an opportunity to get a shot of them together to present itself.

When I noticed Ben standing up, in his elegantly-appointed living room, I figured this was as good a time as there would be.

CONNECTION

“Hi Ben! My name is Thom, thank you for letting come in to your home,” I said putting my hand out. Stupidly, I spoke loudly as if I thought he was deaf and not suffering from a neurodegenerative disease.

But Ben was not hard of hearing. He grabbed my hand, raised his chin and looked me in the eyes. His expression changed subtly to something slightly less empty and wooden. He didn’t grin. The corners of his mouth did not turn upward and mostly, his face held it’s perpetual frown. But his grip was firm and soft and warm and his eyes beamed something psychically, straight into my brain.

Recognizing this connection that may or may not have been common for Ben, but felt extraordinary to me, I released his hand and put both my hands on his two shoulders and looked directly into this man.

“I love your beautiful home and your art,” I said. “Thank you for sharing it with me.”

His eyes looked away for just a second but found their way back and he spoke to me, only with his eyes.

“Thank YOU, just for paying attention to me and treating me politely and talking to me instead of about me and for being a man, who shows me courtesy and respect. I’m really stuck in here, behind these eyes, and it sucks but I’m definitely, defiantly still here. I’m a proud man of Japanese heritage and I was once powerful and spirited and I traveled all over the world and made a shitload of money — and you’re welcome here.”

Even though Ben cannot speak, he said all of that to me, in a matter of a few seconds and I understood it clearly. I even felt it, like a current of electricity that flowed from his shoulders through my hands and arms and then back again.

Then, Julia, holding Ben’s hand, easily walked him the few steps to the couch where they sat next to one another while I quickly grabbed a half dozen images. By then Ben was focused on a small spot of the coffee table. The strong, proud, successful Japanese businessman had retreated back inside to the safe spot where he lives now.

I’m not sure how often that mortal soul is able to show his lionheart but I suspect it’s not very often and I felt like that moment made his day.

There is no doubt that it made mine.

HUMAN BEINGS

This is the thing that I’ve loved the most about the career I’ve had in journalism.

I didn’t do this for 36 years because I was getting rich. I didn’t keep doing it because there was free parking or even because I got to be in the front row, for everything. And I certainly didn’t keep doing it because it felt stable and secure.

I kept doing this because of the human beings that I come in close contact with. In the past year alone, at the insignificant publications that just showed me the door, I met and photographed Don Knapp, a 100-year-old WWII veteran who landed on the beach at Normandy and drove a tank across Europe to participate in the Battle of the Bulge and lived to talk about it; Charles De Flanders, who grew up in Mississippi and didn’t learn to read until he reached his 30s and who is now a published author who holds multiple Masters degrees; and Jon Cesario, who spent 16 drug-addicted years in prison for a gang-related shooting and is now house manager at a facility in Oxnard that helps addicts from their teens to their 70s.

That says nothing about the artists, musicians, philanthropists, advocates, teachers and people in every field and of all ages.

Some of the people I’ve worked with over the years are now among my closest friends. Some of the people I’ve photographed over the years are now, close friends.

I’ve photographed the Olympics, traveled around with the Los Angeles Raiders, photographed 5 different presidents and shook a few of their hands (not all Democrats.)

I’ve been onboard a US Navy Chinook helicopter landing on the deck of the guided missile frigate Antietam in high, roiling seas, sat on the flight deck of a California Air National Guard C-130 bringing relief to earthquake ravaged areas around Watsonville.

I’ve photographed open heart surgery and natural birth.

I spent an afternoon with Beatrice Wood in her upper Ojai studio, just her and I, as she threw a pot on a wheel.

I held in my gloved hand the original 8×10 Kodachrome of Marilyn Monroe, nude on red velvet, photographed by Tom Kelly Sr. for the first issue of Playboy magazine.

This summer, I stood in the middle of the stage while the Ventura College Symphony Orchestra made the hair stand up on my neck as they rehearsed.

THEN CAME STRYCHNINE

All this came crashing down one last time on August 1 when we all learned that Southand Publishing, the diminutive parent company of the VCReporter and Ventana Monthly, among others, sold their soul to the only devil that was making an offer. Times Media Group, A company so unimaginative that they couldn’t even come up with a name that doesn’t sound like it is somehow related to the NYT or the LAT.

Steve Strickbine, a uninspired bean counter with no imagination or original ideas of his own and a glob of grease in his hair, has been swallowing up cheap, humdrum print publications across Arizona for the past few years and turning them into pedestrian robo-rags that resemble newsletters and read like yearbooks.

Now, thanks to a desperate last ditch bid to end the suffering of an ancient, injury-plagued web-offset commercial printing business in Sylmar, Strickbine’s tentacles have reached the coast.

The five newspapers and 2 monthly magazines acquired in that fire sale put TMG in a significantly more sophisticated class of publishing. Although the Southland properties were limited in what they could do on press and resources were sorely lacking, the brand and style of journalism practiced and the look and feel of the papers were, if nothing else, genuine, unique and useful to their communities and produced by humans who care and love what they do.

In less than 30 days the henchman from the desert came and turned those properties into scorched earth preparing the bloody battlefield for the arrival of the little general.

Those that remain will now continue not out of love or commitment but out of fear. They’ve seen how cold pathological liars act when tasked to do the bidding of a CPA behind a desk in a Tempe industrial park.

Strickbine was quoted in the Phoenix Business Journal as saying, “Our commitment is to community news,” he said. “It will never go out of style.”

Except it doesn’t take a genius to see through that boilerplate quote which might as well have been lifted from something Dean Singleton of Media News Group said or from Aaron Kushner, who tried and failed to make newspapers work in Los Angeles here.

The Business Journal story goes on to write, “The additions will operate similarly to how Times Media Group does business in Arizona. While it focuses on newsgathering and selling advertising, the company outsources its printing to others. Integrating those papers will take some time as the offices had a good deal of autonomy under Southland, Strickbine said.”

Goodbye autonomy, Hello yearbook robo-rag.

Some light reading: Times of San Diego,

And then there were none

lioness

The best power trio in the history of the world, tresgatos, has lost the last one of their founding members.

Iggy passed on this morning after a long battle with renal failure.

Linda and I, her two biggest fans, are left with sorrow, photographs and memories.

Maybe the most distinguishing thing that I’ll remember about her was that she had the heart of a lioness.

She was a huntress.

She brought down more than a few birds in our backyard, she grappled with gophers and stared down a few raccoons more twice her size.

But for a lot of years, during the summers, she was a predator and terminator of lizards.

While her two feline companions were sunning themselves on the patio or snoozing the day away on the padded furniture, Iggy would lie in wait, for as long as it would take. Then, when the moment was right she would strike and go trotting across the lawn with the squirming reptile in her mouth.

She almost always brought her victims into the house, where she would release them into her lair — but not until she chewed their tails off.

Despite her penchant for violence against lizards she was, at her core, a sweet and beautiful soul.

Because of her diminutive stature she mostly deferred to the males in her life but was still a committed feminist and a staunch supporter of equal rights for women and the LBGTQ community.

She was well known as a liberal and philanthropist but few knew that she was an avid climber and the only kitty to summit K2 without oxygen.

She was also a champion Formula One driver, a master cellist and a contributor to the Human Genome Project completion.

She loved cheese, shrimp, poultry and anything with gravy and she made cute squeaky sounds when she chewed.

Rumor has it that a biopic has just been green-lighted and Amanda Plummer is attached to the film.

Iggy first arrived in Ventura in 1999 and immediatley adopted Linda Silvestri as her guardian. She liked to call herself Monique but Linda named her Ignatz after the mouse character in the American newspaper comic strip Krazy Kat by cartoonist George Herriman.

Initially Iggy had issues with, Joseph, the other kitty of the house at the time. She found him arrogant, selfish and miserly but eventually the two fell deeply in love and were inseparable until Joey’s passing in September 2011.

Since then she continued to soldier on with her older brother Spooky who left this world in February 2015.

Iggy lived 125 kitty years and crossed over while in Linda’s arms this morning.

We buried her next to her brother Spooky and her life-long companion Joey beneath the ash tree in our backyard in Santa Clarita, right in the middle of lizard breeding grounds.

Now the original tresgatos are reunited and are putting the band back together with Spooky on vocals, Joey on bass and Iggy on cello.

They’ll be touring the universe for the rest of eternity and while I’m not rushing it, when they finally come to town, you can bet Linda and I will be in the front row.