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Monday, April 30, 2018

Southern California Vol. 21 - Sutro Baths

We live in an age of wonder.  I know it's hard for some people reading that to see the logic behind it.  We get caught up in everything from the political landscape to the number of followers on our Twitter account.  We lose sight of the fact that we're living in an age where cars drive themselves, rockets fly  up to space and return to land perfectly on floating platforms and we can carry a library of books, movies and music in a device barely bigger than one of our own hands.

For instance, would anyone reading this be blown away if a friend told you some guy had just built a giant swimming pool nearby?  

I'm guessing most people would shrug it off.  Hell, all of us know someone who owns or has access to a swimming pool.  It's just not a big deal.

However, if I told you that someone built the world's largest indoor swimming pool at the base of a cliff and that the pool was fed by the ocean to the tune of 1,805,000 gallons, then you might... might be impressed.  

If I told you it consisted of six saltwater pools, one freshwater pool and had swings, slides, diving boards and was outfitted with pumps that could fill the pools even at low tide, you may be a little more "wowed".  

What it I told you it was built 122 years ago?

I'm talking about the Sutro Baths and they were a very, very real thing.  Adolph Sutro, a former mayor of San Francisco, built them in 1896 and if you have even an ounce of wonder left in you, the sheer size of the structure should knock you off your feet.  Here's a quick list of materials used in its construction.

Lumber - 3,500,000 board feet

Iron - 600 tons

Glass - 100,000 square feet

Concrete - 10,000 cubic yards

This was no mere swimming pool or even collection of pools.  It was a spectacle!  It also featured an ice skating rink, a 2,700 seat amphitheater and 517 private dressing rooms for people to change in.  It had a museum on site that housed historical artifacts and stuffed/mounted animals including "Monarch", the grizzly bear who appears on the California state flag.

It was such a big draw that two railroad lines served it.  So what happened to it?

Simply put, it was just too expensive to keep running.  The baths ran from 1896 until the mid-1960's.  All told, that's a pretty solid run when you think about it.  

In 1966, it was in the process of being demolished when it caught fire and burned to the ground.  All that remains are the concrete ruins and they are visible and accessible.  

They're now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco.  Looking at the foundation, you can get a good idea of just how gigantic Adolph Sutro's vision was.

If you're in the San Francisco area and decide to spend time in the National Park there, be sure to swing by and take a look.  When you do, spend a moment thinking of how awesome it must have been even though you live in a time where almost anything is possible.

Let's say you're traveling to San Francisco and you are going to spend a day at the park, why not spend it with a good book?  You can find my book The Wash here at my Amazon Author's page.  

Until next time, stop and take a look around you and marvel at the fact that you just read something beamed to you via invisible waves.

An age of wonders, my friends.  An age of wonders.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

SPUNK - How the Sex Pistols Pirated Themselves

Nothing quite shook my world like discovering punk rock and while the first songs I heard were Dead Kennedys tunes, it was the Sex Pistols who really grabbed me by the short hairs.  The first time I heard "Anarchy in the UK", it was a life changing experience.  Here were the snarling, menacing guitars that I’d loved hearing on songs like "Won’t Get Fooled Again", only they were more stripped down and raw.  This wasn't the record that made me want to pick up a guitar.  That honor goes to The Who's album Who's Next.  This was the record that made me want to pick up a guitar and WRITE! 

So believe me when I say that I have a little bit of a Sex Pistols obsession.  They really only put out one album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols.  Every release after was either a collection of demos or featured only part of the band.  However, I have multiple copies of this single album.

I own the American release.

Here's the Italian release (which came with a killer "punk" flyer advertising other bands from that time).

And I own the picture disc version.

I've also owned it on cassette and currently have the CD.  Aside from those, I have vinyl copies of bootlegs and follow-up releases that most people would never bother looking at, much less buy.  Suffice to say, John Lydon has made more than his fair share of royalties from me and I'm not sorry to have handed over the money.  

However, there is one Sex Pistols album in my collection which is special and there's a great story behind its creation.

In 1976, The Sex Pistols and the British punk scene had finally come to the attention of major record labels.  The music establishment realized there was money to be made off of all these kids who were dressing weird, forming bands and could barely play their instruments.  EMI signed the band to a two year contract and stuck them in the studio right away with producer Dave Goodman. 

EMI was a very old school, British label.  They knew about the Sex Pistols reputation.  How could they miss it?  Still, they thought that on some level it must all be part of an act.  They expected The Pistols to be proper musicians when not on stage or in front of the music press.  That was a huge mistake.  

Thus, when the band was asked to be on the Bill Grundy Show as a replacement for Queen, the Pistols acted as they always did and completely shocked a nation by calling the host a "dirty fucker" on live television.  According to Steve Jones (who uttered those offending words and a few more) it was because Grundy (a much older man) had made a pass at a teenage Siouxsie Sioux who had come to the set with them.

Whatever the circumstance, the only impression most people came away with was that The Pistols were animals and suddenly, EMI had a problem.  In order to save face, the label dropped The Sex Pistols and cut their losses less than a year into the band's contract.

While the mainstream press made them out to be devils, one record company took a chance on them anyway.  They were soon signed to Virgin Records who put them in the studio and recorded what would be their only official studio album Never Mind The Bollocks.  

Here's where my elusive album comes in.  In the months leading up to the release of Never Mind The Bollocks, another record started circulating in the U.K.  It was referred to as SPUNK and came in a plain white sleeve with no mention of the name of the band on the album label. It was a bootleg and it was sold out of the back of record shops.  Word got out pretty quickly that this was in fact the Sex Pistols, despite the song titles being changed on the label.  

For instance, the first track "Lazy Sod" was pretty obviously "Seventeen".  "Nookie" was actually "Anarchy in the U.K.".  "No Future" was "God Save the Queen".  There was no doubt in anyone's mind that these were the EMI sessions the band had done with Dave Goodman.

Virgin was furious.  The band's manager Malcolm McLaren had retained all rights to those recordings so they immediately thought he'd been the one to release them.  This would have violated the band's contract and McLaren denied he'd had anything to do with it.  Virgin was never able to directly connect it to him so they dropped their investigation into the matter.  Instead, they finished production and shipped Never Mind the Bollocks in October of 1977.  To this day, no one knows for sure who leaked those tapes, but anyone who's read anything about Malcolm McLaren knows it was probably him.

The thing about SPUNK for hardcore Sex Pistols fans, is it's the only recording of the band's original lineup.  Glen Matlock, the original bass player, played on the EMI sessions but he'd been fired by the band before they signed with Virgin.  Sid Vicious had been brought on to replace him, but to put it charitably, Sid couldn't play the bass for shit.  Instead, guitarist Steve Jones played all of the bass parts on Nevermind The Bollocks, so if you're me and you really want to hear the band at the height of their powers, you want to hear SPUNK.

Which brings me to the University of Georgia in 1998.  I was living in family housing with my wife and as we were walking to the mailboxes one day, I found a two crates of records just sitting there.  I left them, thinking someone would claim them.  They were still there a week later, so I brought them back to our apartment.  I reported them to the office and said if anyone wanted to claim them I'd be happy to give them back.  No one ever called.

There, in the middle of one of the crates, was SPUNK

It's not worth a ton of money, especially since it's been released on CD now, but I have it on vinyl and that's what matters to me.  Its sound is much less polished than Never Mind The Bollocks, but the band is tight and it's my favorite of my Sex Pistols vinyl releases.


Because unlike all the others, it found its way to me.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Southern California Vol. 20 - Monsterpalooza!

There’s a little warmth in the air.  Flowers are beginning to bloom.  Birds are chirping.  That can only mean one thing if you live in Southern California. 
It’s time for Monsterpalooza! 

Now, I know this blog has been focused on weird SoCal destinations and this is more of an event, but I would argue it doesn’t get much weirder than these three days in Pasadena.  I would also argue that you should make this a destination.  I attended Monsterpalooza for the first time about five years ago.  I instantly vowed I would not miss it again so long as I lived here.  For horror fans, this is like three consecutive days of Christmas morning.

The whole show started out as a trade show for mask makers and people in the makeup effects industry.  It was a place where new companies could show off their abilities and new technologies could be pitched directly to representatives from the big movie studios just a few miles away.  In fact, for years it was actually held in Burbank, so close to Warner Bros. and Universal that you could practically throw a rock and hit them.  An off season, smaller incarnation (Son of Monsterpalooza) still takes place there in the fall.  The spring version has grown much too big for that venue though. 

Over the years, the show has grown to include artists, authors, model makers, sculptors and toy vendors.  You’ll find actors from some of your favorite horror films signing autographs and posing for pictures.  You can attend panels on things like this year’s costume creations for Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights and discussions with the team behind the Fish-Man suit from The Shape of Water.  That one was particularly fun as they got into a sidebar on how they had to give the character a shapely butt when Doug Jones (the actor in the suit) doesn't have one.  It's not all necessarily just about movies though.  A few years ago, I went to an excellent panel of writers discussing H. P. Lovecraft and why his creatures endure in literature but are so hard to capture believably on film. 

The real fun though, is that the makeup and mask people are still there, representing the best way possible.  They’re making people up right on the show floor.  Once they're finished, the monsters walk around and mingle with the crowd.  You can watch zombies come to life, see demonstrations from massive puppet creations and then there’s the museum!

Every year, the museum features the most outstanding creations from exhibitors at the show.  You’ll find themed exhibits like the one above of Larry Talbot and his cursed alter-ego.  

Some exhibitors make incredibly detailed life-sized models like this recreation of a scene from The Exorcist.   

This bust inspired by John Carpenter’s The Thing was a highlight for me.

And while you’re there, you can swing by and say hello to the guys from Monster Party (one of the most fun and informative horror podcasts ever).   Special thanks to Lil for making us all look better.

So, while you’ve missed it this year you can at least mark it on your calendar and squeeze it in next year.  If you stay in the area, you can take time to visit Huntington Gardens (which we’ll talk about in a future post) and you’ll be close enough to easily visit Griffith Park and many of the other places I’ve written about here.  Seriously, I wouldn’t be writing about it if I didn’t think it was an awesome way to spend a day.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Another Diving Story Involving Cary Practically Soiling Himself

Time for another quick diving story.  This one is about another one of those moments when I almost soiled my wetsuit.  It ended up being something I’ve never experienced since but would love to again.

I’ve written about Catalina Island in these pages before.  It’s a fantastic place to dive and one of my favorite spots in Southern California.  It’s also a place where the conditions can change drastically from day to day.  I’ve been underwater and seen the visibility go from 30 – 40 feet to less than 10 feet  in the space of a single dive.  I’ve also been under the surface and come up to find waves much larger than when I went in and wind that made getting out difficult at best. 

Catalina Island has recently had its share of Great White sightings.  I’ve never seen one while diving there, but there are more than a few reports about them being sighted along the coves around the island.  In a Discovery Channel special on the return of Great Whites to Southern California they actually got footage of one cruising the bottom while one of the show “hosts” was swimming on the surface next to one of the cliffs.

Keep that in mind as you read this story.  One day, a friend and I went diving in Catalina and it ended up being the clearest that we’ve ever seen it there.  Visibility was literally 80 feet or more.  It was beyond amazing!  We swam along the bottom, through the kelp beds and then as things got deeper, we decided to come up to the surface and get our bearings.  We ascended up to the 15 foot mark and hovered while we waited for our bodies to decompress a bit. 

As we sat there, we noticed a giant school of bait fish at the same level we were at.  They were about 20 – 30 feet away and just hovering there like us.  The light from above was reflecting off them and it was kind of like watching a giant ball of squirming tinfoil flashing in front of us.  It was incredible.

All of a sudden, every single one of them left!

In fact, the school split in two, with one half shooting off in one direction and the other half going the opposite direction. 

The time between that happening and what happened next was less than one second but it was one of those instances in my life where time slowed to a stop.  In my head, I knew two things.  First, the only reason those fish would scatter like that was if there was danger.
The second thing I realized was that they could swim way faster than me.

My thoughts went to the obvious.  I immediately looked for sharks.  Later, when we were on the surface, my diving partner would confirm that he thought something similar.  Instead of coming from below though, the threat was coming from above and it was awesome.  
Like a jet fighter, a streamlined shape came streaking through the water leaving a trail of bubbles behind it.  It took a moment for my brain to register what I was seeing.  It was a cormorant.  It had hit the water at full speed trying to pick off one of those flashing, silvery fish but they’d been too fast for him.  We watched as it made a graceful arc and headed back to the surface.  That’s when we realized we were surfacing also.  We’d been caught up in the excitement so much; we’d failed to maintain our neutral buoyancy.

The closest I’ve seen online to what we actually saw that day can be found about :28 seconds into the video above.  It was incredible.  I’ve been on almost 100 dives and one of the greatest things I ever experienced came from the sky.  Go figure. 

This is the part of the blog where I usually say something about my book The Wash and how you should pick it up.  I don't see any reason to change that strategy now.  You can find it on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.  You can also find a handful of other things at my Amazon Author's page.

Until next time, enjoy!

Monday, April 16, 2018

Southern California Vol. 19 - Salton Sea

There's a good chance that you've never heard of the Salton Sea.  I know I'd never heard of it until I met my wife and she told me her parents liked to drive by it on their way to other desert destinations.  I have to admit that it's one of the places that I really want to visit but haven't made the trip yet.  Everything you read below comes from reference materials and Wikipedia, but I'm writing about it because it absolutely fascinates me.

You see, the story of the Salton Sea is a California story of boom and bust that is actually pretty recent.  In fact, those most affected by it are still struggling to deal with the fallout and the state itself is scrambling to keep it from turning into a major health crisis.

The Salton Sea is that large blue hole in the middle of the map above.  To put it in perspective, you can find San Diego in the lower left of that map.  It's basically a giant body of water out in the middle of the desert and it came about by accident.  Back in the early 1900's, a series of canals had been dug to divert water from the Colorado River to make some of the land in that area more fertile.  The canals worked but soon silt from agricultural runoff began to build up in them.  

Engineers tried their best to open up the canals further but had no luck and in 1905, when the Colorado River swelled way beyond normal, the water breached the Imperial Valley dike.  The breach created two new rivers and diverted the Colorado entirely.  Over the course of two years (basically until they were able to repair the dike) the water began doing what water generally does.  It gathered in the lowest point in the area and what we know as the Salton Sea was born.  

The lake itself is relatively shallow and since it sits in the desert, there's no shortage of "beach" area along its shores.  This is exactly what started to catch the eye of developers in the 1950's.

Soon, the Salton Sea was being marketed as California's Riviera.  There was a marina, restaurants, bars, and night life.  People visited to swim, ski, sun bathe and relax under the desert stars.  I'd have loved to visit it in its heyday!  

One of our family's favorite giant bug movies (The Monster That Challenged The World) is set there and much of it was shot on location. 

So what happened and why am I even writing about this now?  Well, because the Salton Sea today is a much, much different place.  One thing that you have to remember about big lakes in the desert is that unless they have a constant influx of water from rivers, they tend to get polluted and dry up.  The Salton Sea is no exception.  

Over the years, runoff from nearby agricultural areas polluted the water and contributed to fish kills and algal blooms.  Additionally, because the water sits on top of a salt flat and the desert air continues to evaporate what water is there, the salinity of the Salton Sea continues to rise at about three percent each year.

What happens when the giant body of water you live on begins to smell like dead fish and rotten eggs?  Well, people stop visiting and when tourism dies, the tourist town dies with it.

The towns around the Salton Sea are not quite ghost towns yet.  There's still a hearty group of people who live there, but all around them things are decaying.  

It's not just an unpleasant odor that's causing people to leave either.  As the water recedes, dust is being picked up by the desert wind and blown toward the coast.  This dust is creating asthma issues for people in nearby cities already, but it's estimated that if something isn't done to bring more water into the area, the dust level could increase so much that it actually reaches the coast.

Still, there's something weird an beautiful about this place even as it's decaying.  If you find yourself around the Palm Springs area, you could do worse than traveling out to the Salton Sea for an afternoon among what was once a thriving vacation spot.

Speaking of decaying ghost towns, there's one in Utah that doesn't exist anywhere but in the pages of my book The Wash.  You may find that one interesting also.  You can pick it up at my Amazon Authors page here.

Until next week, adios!

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Five Bands Vol. 5 - For The Love of Vinyl Album Covers

Don’t be scared away by the word "vinyl" in the title of this column.  We’re not even going to touch the question of whether pristine virgin vinyl sounds better than a compact disc.  See, my hearing is basically screwed on a number of levels.  I spent many years in front of amplifiers both on stage and off without wearing hearing protection.  Thus, I do have some hearing loss so you could play me a virgin pressing of something and I likely couldn’t tell the difference between that and a CD. 
So why am I talking about vinyl?  The reasoning is even geekier than any argument about audio.  It has to do with album cover art.  If there is only one thing I bemoan about the switch from vinyl to CD and now to digital streaming, it's that the artwork shrank.  There used to be something I really enjoyed about getting that vinyl album with the double gatefold sleeve and perusing every inch of it for some small clue as to what the band was about.  It was mysterious and it went beyond just getting the lyrics on the album sleeve.  It was about looking for the essence of the music in the cover art itself.   
I’m 49 years old and I will still pull out an album cover on occasion and take it all in while listening to music.  In this column,  I'd like to share some of my favorites with you. 

The Five Albums In My Collection With My Favorite Art:

1.  Miles Davis - Bitch's Brew:  Seriously, this is a work of sheer genius both for the content of the album and the artwork on the cover.  Shrinking it down to a five inch by five inch CD booklet is like shrinking down the Mona Lisa to a wallet picture.  Laying on the floor staring at this while Miles Runs The Voodoo Down plays is about the closest you can get to touching God without help from recreational drugs or a life of chastity and meditation.  The inside of the album cover contains one of those awesome old marketing pieces from Columbia where someone tries to explain exactly why this album is amazing.  In this case, Ralph J. Gleason writes everything he needs to in the first paragraph (but of course then goes on to write thirteen more).
“There is so much to say about this music.  I don’t mean so much to explain about it because that’s stupid, the music speaks for itself.  What I mean is that so much flashes through my mind when I hear the tapes of this album that if I could I would write a novel about it full of life and scenes and people and blood and sweat and love.” – Ralph J. Gleason

2. KMFDM – UAIOE:  This one wrapped me up so tight it took years to untangle my brain.  The music is as brutal as any KMFDM album, but it’s that cover art (all black, red and white) that had me lying on the bed, staring at it over and over again.  The island in the background exploding into a blood red sea is freakish enough but the face staring out at you is infinitely scarier.  There’s a look in his eyes that screams anarchy and the lazy right one hints at madness.  There’s the bit of saliva that has escaped from his front right tooth and is sliding over his lower lip.  There’re the small drops of sweat beading down from his forehead and there’s the smile that says, “It'll be fine, just trust me.”  He is the true face of The X-Files Cigarette Smoking Man.  When the towers in New York went down in 2001, this is the face I thought of, smiling and walking away from the destruction.  When we first moved into this house, I wanted to frame this and put it on the wall in my home office but my wife outvoted me.

3. Lou Reed – Lou Reed:  So all I’d ever heard by Lou Reed was Walk on the Wild Side and (thanks to MTV) I Love You Suzanne.  I found this record in a used record store when I was about 16 and I remember buying it because of the name, but the cover wrapped it’s corners around both lobes of my brain and captivated me.  There is so much going on here.  First, you’ve got New York in the background, which is exactly what should be on the cover of a Lou Reed album.  Then you’ve got this wave breaking down the center of the street.  What the hell is that about?  Oh but wait, Lou’s name is spelled out in flowers floating above while hummingbirds flit around it.  Then, below is this Faberge egg unfolding to reveal a jewel-encrusted flowerpot. 

And of course, all of that is there just to throw you off the trail of the real essence of the album. Lou Reed’s first album is all about the figure in the lower left hand corner.  The dark bird with its head down, half cast in shadow and ignoring the mystery, wonder and beauty of what’s going on around him is the distillation of the ten songs on this album.  I got all of that from listening to it repeatedly and studying the cover and who knows?  I could be totally wrong, but that's what it says to me and my listening experience was better off for it.  

4. Kraftwerk – The Man-Machine:  If album cover art is meant to create an impression of the contents of the album, no other artists may have hit the mark truer than Kraftwerk.  Despite many people trying to get me to listen to Autobahn and Trans-Europe Express, I just wasn’t a big fan.  Which leads me to one day when I was 17 and loitering in Spec’s Music in Lakeland, Florida.  My favorite record store clerk saw I was picking up Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark' Crush album.  He quickly steered me over to Kraftwerk, which prompted me to explain how much I didn’t like them. 

He gave me the record.  Seriously, he must have written it off as stolen or something but he slipped The Man-Machine into the bag and told me to give it a serious listen.  The Man-Machine is much less cold and robotic than some of their earlier stuff and as I stared at the album cover, I realized that they had subtly insinuated that on their cover.  The red shirts, snappy black ties and dynamic diagonal lines of the cover art suggested something that was still regimented but more stylish, slanted and off-kilter.  Sure enough, The Man-Machine was only a few steps removed from that OMD album and the cover art was much cooler too.

5. Elvis Costello – Armed Forces:  I’ve saved the best for last.  When it comes to cover art in my album collection, my copy of Armed Forces takes the cake.  Then, it smashes the cake, bakes another one and takes that one too. 

First off, there’s the cover with its herd of elephants standing next to the bones of their fallen.  The painting is gorgeous and the elephants are a symbol of unstoppable power representing the music on the album inside.

Closer inspection of the album cover reveals that this isn’t your normal sleeve.  In fact, to open it, you have to flip it over where you’ll find significantly different cover art mixing images of soldiers, tanks and pop art.  Plus it’s split horizontally across the middle allowing you to unfold it.

Open those two flaps and your brain is assaulted with color.  This time it’s less military (although there are some sailors in the upper half).  But like that puzzle in the Hellraiser movies, there’s still more to unfold.

A visual bomb has now gone off and it’s blowing the rods and cones in your optic fluid through the back of your skull.  Luckily for you, you’ve peeled back the fruit to its wonderful nugget of sonic goodness, but inside there’s more than just the album. 

Remove the vinyl and you get the total visual of the “Elvis Costello and The Attractions Armed Forces” artwork.  That’s still not the end though.

Aside from the album itself, there's an EP of a live performance as well as individual cards with photos of the band members.

Hours.  Hours and hours and hours were spent poring over this cover art while listening to Accidents Will Happen, (What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding, Goon Squad and Oliver's Army.  Despite Imperial Bedroom having my favorite Costello song (Beyond Belief), Armed Forces is my favorite Elvis Costello album.  Even today, when I play it on my iPod I appreciate it more because of the time I spent with its cover, soaking in the music and appreciating every note, every word and every pause between tracks.

Long live Vinyl.
One more thing!  Since we're talking about retro stuff, why not pick up a copy of my book The Wash?  You can even get a good, old-fashioned paper version of it!  You can follow this link to my Amazon author's page to get a copy for yourself.

Thanks for reading and I'll see you next week!