A Private Happy 80th Birthday Letter to Bob Dylan That I’m Calling an Open Letter Because I Don’t Have His Contact Information So This is the Only Way I Can Reach Him

Dear Bob,

Happy birthday! You don’t know me, but I’m among those who admire you as a fearless innovator and powerful creative force, who also has written some catchy tunes. And it’s from this place of love that I wish you a happy 80th birthday by presenting you with a one-word recommendation for your concert programs: Medleys. 

Let me be frank, Bob. I love your long, rambling diatribes about visions you’ve had about that Johanna girl and the desolation you found in that row of houses on the other side of town. Those are great songs, triumphs, I would say. Unimpeachable. And yet, today’s audience is different, Bob. This is the TikTok generation. We like things “short.” It wouldn’t hurt if you wrote some shorter songs. That’s why I’m suggesting medleys. They can be your shortcut to “short.” If you made medleys of your older songs by pulling together some of the better lines—like “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows” and “The whole wide world is watching,” just to mention a few—you might win over a whole new generation. 

And how about your stamina, Bob? Despite your past claims, you’re not getting any “younger than that now,” and let’s face it, we all slow down with age. Do you really need to sing all six verses of “Chimes of Freedom”—not to mention all eight lines in each verse? The Byrds didn’t—and they had the hit with it! Doesn’t that suggest to you that all your audience ever really needs is a taste? And that’s what medleys give them. 

The payoff for you is a less taxing night with more frequent applause! When George Jones launched into the familiar opening lines of “From the Window Up Above,” the audience cheered, and 30 seconds later they cheered again when that gave way to “Walk Through This World With Me.” And so on. What’s wrong with that? Besides, all the greats perform medleys. Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes. I mean, you can’t do medleys unless you’ve had hits. It’s an exclusive club. And Bob, you are one of its most highly regarded members. Take advantage of it!

To help get you started, I’ve embedded a brief medley of a few of your classic numbers below. Please feel free to use this as is—or as a starting point, or as an inspiration to build your own medley. Whatever you want, Bob, I’m with you!

Let me close by saying that I hope your friends and family celebrate your birthday with you by singing, “Happy Birthday,” a really short song that is still hugely popular—a good model for you! Now please, please, please, I don’t expect any thanks for my s(t)age advice. As I say, I’m offering this from a place of love. Please don’t make a fuss. All the thanks I really need is seeing you onstage performing a medley of your hits! That would be so Positively Fourth Street!

Sign me,

Just a Guy Who Would Love to Have Your Contact Information, Though I’m Not Sure What I Would Do With It Because I Have Enough Trouble Already Staying in Touch With Family and Friends

Photo at the top of the page shows a rearranged cake decoration package assembled by Claire Marziotti to publicize the night I led a celebration of Bob Dylan’s 50th birthday by playing his songs exclusively on what was another long night at the Landmark Pub in Brooklyn. My performance included no medleys. Go figure.

Revisiting the Carpenters in 1976 London

A friend recently sent me a 1998 book, The Mansion on the Hill, by Fred Goodman, about the yin yang of rock music’s capacity to both inspire youth and bankroll corporations. Goodman struck a chord with me in his prologue, describing the role music played in forming friendships during his high school years in the 1960s. 

“When you first met someone, the conversation turned immediately to music because once you knew which bands a person listened to, you knew if you were going to get along…. First you’d check to see if the basic language was there—the Beatles, the Stones…Motown and Stax…Dylan. After that you’d probe special interests for signs of sophistication or character flaws. For example, a passion for perfectly acceptable but lightweight group like Steppenwolf showed a certain genial rebelliousness but suggested a lack of depth …. It was, I recall, a remarkably accurate system.” 

I had a similar code, and as I recall, being a fan of the Carpenters was pretty much a deal breaker. Goodman corroborates this in that the 19-page index in his well-annotated 400-plus page book lists many of the top acts of the 1950s through the 1970s—but no Carpenters. The duo was too conventional, too square to gain a foothold in the counterculture.

Of course, the Carpenters later gained a little cachet when Karen died young and Richard revealed he’d battled drug addiction. And over time I lightened up on my musical code, recognizing that Karen sang really well, that the duo made some enduring music—and that there was something wrong with a rating system that rewards people for getting addicted and dying young. And so it was with vague thoughts of reconciling all this that I tuned in to a YouTube video of The Carpenters in concert at the New London Theatre in 1976. 

Taking a New Tack

I’ve subsequently learned that at the time, the Carpenters were looking to better focus their performances, partly in response to newly stagnating record sales. They had been selling well and touring heavily since 1970. But in 1975, they paused their non-stop work schedule, partly in response to Karen being hospitalized for anorexia that summer, leading them to cancel two international tours. 

Also at this time, Richard was developing a Quaalude problem. It would have its biggest professional impact on Sept. 4, 1978 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas when Richard’s dependence led him to abruptly cancel the night’s second show and the remainder of their two-week engagement. It turned out to be their last public performance.

But in 1976, Richard’s problem wasn’t yet dire, and Karen had regained some of her weight and strength. They also took a new approach to their performing. Where for years their concerts simply presented their songs faithfully as recorded, now they were setting out with their first scripted stage show. And that’s what they present at the New London Theatre. 

Performance-wise, the Carpenters appear to be at the top of their game, backed by their crackerjack five-piece touring band—including former Mouseketeer Cubby O’Brien on drums—and a full orchestra for broadcast on the BBC.

Surprise!

I was a little surprised that the duo was introduced separately, not as a group. Apparently, that was to ensure Karen wasn’t overshadowing Richard. As musical director, he came on first, appearing a bit imperious, she second, a bit gaunt. 

Perhaps the show’s biggest surprise, though, was their version of “Close to You” (9:55). Richard sang it in a precisely executed Spike Jones arrangement, the band revving up to a Wile-E-Coyote-chasing-the-Roadrunner tempo, punctuated by honking and clanging on a generous line of novelty instruments. 

It’s pretty great, and it seems wickedly out of character for the sensitive, soft-rock duo. But it’s also revealing. When they play with convention, they make fun they way their parent’s generation did. I’m a Spike Jones fan, and I like this performance, but 23-skidoo humor wasn’t exactly a calling card for the underground rock crowd of the day. 

Likewise their show’s structure borrowed more from cabaret than counterculture. Between songs they embraced the time-honored shtick of telling the glossed-up story of their rise from obscurity to fame, and they crammed their hits into a medley, a form that hipper bands avoided in favor of extended solos and psychedelic light shows. 

Virtuosity on Display

The siblings also worked in a few segments to showcase their virtuosity. Richard played a classical piece, the Warsaw Concerto, in a moment reminiscent of Wayne Newton playing “Orange Blossom Special” on fiddle and “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” on banjo in his Las Vegas revues. None fit the context of the show, except to demonstrate that the artist can match the performances of the masters. Like they have a chip on their shoulder. 

At that point in her career, Karen was no longer the Carpenters’ drummer, having abandoned her instrument to adhere to the common show business dictum that attractive female vocalists do not sit behind drum kits. But her showcase segment—also part of the “rise-to-fame” script—tracked her youthful development as a drummer playing and soloing on a series of ever-larger drum kits. She had real chops, and plays on this night with unmistakable tomboyish passion. 

Had the Carpenters tapped more of the counterculture spirit, Karen would have played drums all night (maybe double-drumming with Cubby!), Richard would have demonstrated his virtuosity in a 15-minute version of “Superstar,” and the stories of achieving success would have been left to be told by music journalists. 

But then I guess they wouldn’t have been the Carpenters. 

Photo at the top of the page: 

The Carpenters meet with President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office on Aug. 1, 1972. Not sure how much the Carpenters were paying attention to current events, but that’s just a little more than two years after Nixon was prompted to call protesters “bums blowing up campuses” following the the Kent State massacre. Today marks the 51st anniversary of that mass shooting in which four unarmed students were killed and nine injured by National Guardsmen on the Kent State campus.  

The Aug. 1, 1972 date also has historical significance, as it was the day The Washington Post reported a $25,000 check for the Nixon campaign was discovered to have been deposited in the bank account of one of the Watergate burglars, tying the burglary to Nixon’s campaign for the first time.

You can hear the Nixon Library’s low-quality recording of the Nixon-Carpenters Oval Office meeting here, and you can see video of the photo session here.

Getting the Band Back Together

I’ve done as I was told during the pandemic, staying home, wearing a mask, socially distancing and washing my hands. For the most part it was no big deal—I was already working from home before the pandemic anyway. The only routine I had to change was in my musical life. 

As COVID cases were growing exponentially in New York State in March 2020, my band Watkins and the Rapiers was beginning a residency at Rochester’s Little Theatre Café, scheduled to perform every Monday in March and April. 

We kicked things off March 2 accompanying our music with a silent auction of recently banned and “soon-to-be-vintage” plastic shopping bags (five) that just two days earlier were free at area retail stores. I wasn’t sure what was more curious, that people enthusiastically bid on the bags contributing a total of $22 (which we put in the Little Café server’s tip jar) or that the run-of-the-mill Walgreens bag shared the highest bid with the classic smiley face emoji bag. 

At any rate, it was a normal Monday of music and distraction. 

Losing Normal

At the time, our area had no known COVID cases, though the virus was wreaking havoc eight or 10 counties away. That soon changed, as our first case was reported March 4. Our next gig on Monday, March 9, turned out to be our last. 

Yes, things moved pretty quickly. We practiced March 11, learning some Irish songs for what would have been our day-before-St. Patrick’s Day performance. The next day the NHL and NBA shut down, a seemingly unthinkable turn. Soon after the Little Theatre canceled all café performances. 

And the band went on hiatus. 

Truth be told there was something liberating about abandoning the cat-herding required to schedule practices for a six-member band, and the set-in-stone gig dates that always thwarted some social or vacation option or other. Of course, the social and vacation options were also dwindling, so…. 

Watkins and the Rapiers performed “Sturgis,” a “Woodstock” parody, on Oct. 17, 2020 in the socially distanced parking lot of the Little Theatre Café, Rochester, N.Y. 

Pandemic Reunions

Yes, we’ve had a few performances and get-togethers since then.

  • In April 2020 we did three live streams, but because we were socially isolating, we didn’t perform them as a band. Rather we treated them as song circles, performing solo tunes one after another from our homes, taking advantage of the format to include former band member Rob Goodwin, who joined us for the first time in 20 years from his home in Montana, and to reach out-of-town folks who rarely had a chance to see us. These sessions were gratifying, but they lacked the musical interactions that make us a band, and really, the sound and visuals aren’t great on live streams. Three dates seemed like enough. 
  • The band also played two socially distanced gigs on outdoor stages last fall, one in a backyard, the other in a parking lot, for which we had one outdoor practice in a driveway. Those were like reunions—momentary glimpses into what life sort of used to be like. 
  • Attempts to initiate recording projects whereby each of us would contribute parts from our home studios failed to take hold, but we did manage to keep alive our tradition of presenting new Christmas music each year by posting YouTube videos of five original songs by four of our members recorded individually in home studios. 

And just as we’d waited out the summer, we settled in for the long pandemic winter. 

Watkins and the Rapiers rehearse on April 20, 2021, lower left to right: Scott Regan, Steve Piper, Marty York, Rick McRae, Kerry Regan (in foreground) and Tom Whitmore.

Ready for Another Bite

Not long ago, we began hearing from some of our FWGs (friends with gigs) about booking some outdoor performances this summer. This was more or less how I imagined the return to musical normal: a few outdoor summer gigs, then by fall, maybe enough people would be vaccinated to make indoor performances safe again. 

And sure enough our band members have been getting vaccinated, and by last week, we had all gotten our second shots. It was safe to practice again. So we got together indoors for the first time since March 2020. 

After a year of solitary woodshedding, resuming our former routines around playing in the band was both familiar and exotic, peppered with occasional rushes of euphoria that were probably more than the music warranted. It was like normal with a footnote saying that normal’s not normal and could be a mirage. We brushed up on some older songs, introduced a few new ones written during the pandemic, and ate some of Tom’s homemade cookies. 

How strange, how fortunate to just pick up where we left off, to be moving forward again, as if we hadn’t missed any beats at all.

Photo at the top of the page: Then-freshly reunited Finnish death metal band Abhorrence live at Tuska Open Air2013 pretty much looks the way my band does in my dreams about returning to the music scene. Photo By Cecil – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27029831

Did Someone Say: Rewrite the Lyrics to ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’?

Singing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” in an Aug. 4 live-streamed tribute to The Band’s “The Last Waltz” made Alabama-based singer-songwriter Early James a little uneasy. In this national moment when statues of Confederate war heroes are being removed amidst Black Lives Matter protests, he wanted to be clear he had no sympathy to the causes of the Old South. So he reworked some of the song’s lyrics. The title line, for example, became “Tonight, we drive old Dixie down.” 

You can read more about his rewrite here. He certainly did a credible job, but did he still come up a little short of capturing the current sensibility? Early, what would you think about something more like this:

Photo at the top of the page by Infrogmation (talk), CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25402681.

What I Did On My Coronavirus Vacation

Today’s word from Kerry is an apology for being so late in posting my song about the coronavirus, “The Quarantine Scene.” I’m sorry. Self-isolation was a novel thing when I wrote it on March 19 and imagined it rocketing around the world as the viral hit of the pandemic. Now that the first wave of business reopenings have started, it’s a bit long in the tooth. My cultural antennae tell me no one is craving a nostalgic look back at the self-quarantine of March and April. 

One qualification for my apology: I did manage a timely performance of the song when my band did three live streams in April. Our six band members each performed solo from our homes, including our drummer, Marty York, who played a memorable drum solo on his washing machine on that first night, April 13, when I debuted “The Quarantine Scene.”

But I knew I needed a more fully arranged version for this thing to go viral. And I wanted to produce it in true quarantine style, from the home studios of people who never played the song together in person, so it would not only be about the quarantine, but of the quarantine. And it felt right to restrict performers to family members, because you quarantine with your family. It didn’t hurt that several of my brothers and nephews could fill out the arrangement nicely. 

We had challenges. Our best bass player (Forrest) wasn’t available because his brother (Kieran) had bailed out of Brooklyn to stay with him in his suddenly cramped Tipperary Hill (Syracuse) apartment. An even bigger issue: none of the three who signed on had experience running a home digital recording studio. But this would be a chance to learn! Wasn’t that what the quarantine was all about, learning Zoom and other digital technologies that provide virtual socialization? Besides, my brother Phil (drums) and I were already dabblers, and we had talked about trying remote recording projects before the pandemic. My nephew Zac (violin) hadn’t recorded digitally in years, but he enthusiastically bought the equipment he needed. And we were off.

Some things came easily. Others took time and patience—a lot of YouTube tutorials, a few redos and a consultation or two with outside experts—until we eventually had something we all felt good about. 

Now as the self-quarantine is slowly lifting, I realize that this was my one project that ran through the entirety of our “pure” self-isolation period from mid-March to mid-May. It led me to learn at least some of the intricacies of Garageband software and how to turn a Zoom meeting into a YouTube live stream to broadcast our band’s performances and the song’s debut. It rallied me to open a SoundCloud account, where this recording is my first post. And it led me to engage with family members in other cities, and imagine a slew of projects we can do together during—and after—the pandemic.

Don’t get me wrong. I also took it easy during self-isolation. I had few deadlines. I went on long dog walks. I re-initiated long-ignored projects around the house. I phoned some people I hadn’t connected with in a while, with many more I should call. I watched movies with my wife almost every night. And Tiger King. 

Those are some of the reasons it took me longer than I thought it would to get this song out. But no worries. Not being too hard on yourself is part of what the quarantine scene was all about. 

Thoughts Stirred By a ‘Murder Most Foul’

Dusting off an impeccable ability to read the moment that has been mothballed for decades, Bob Dylan on March 26 released his first original song in eight years. Apparently he’d been sitting on his recording of “Murder Most Foul” for some time and decided to release it now for “my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty across the years,” he wrote in a tweet. 

And all 17 minutes of are is free to stream. No doubt, his generosity was in part a response to this strange time in which we now live, with huge swathes of our economy shut down as people isolate themselves to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Everyday people are hoarding toilet paper. The New York Times runs photos of empty Manhattan streets looking like a Twilight Zone revival. And the president asks the states’ governors to show their appreciation to him before he responds to their pandemic needs. 

I’m among those who have been taking advantage of the bonus self-isolation time now on my hands to delve into long-shelved projects. This is a time to write that book, to organize those family photos, to devote time to the longer forms that are so easy to set aside in favor of tweets and TV. So if there was ever a time to release the longest song in a catalog that includes such marathon performances as “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” and “Desolation Row,” this is it. (I’m a little disappointed that at 16:56, it is just short of the 17:05 album version of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”—couldn’t you have stretched for 10 more seconds Bob?)

On my first listen, it took me a while to adjust to the song’s sonic landscape: bowed bass and strings, piano, occasional drums and that gravelly old Bob Dylan voice, not exactly singing, but not exactly talking either. It comes off a bit like a moodier “If Dogs Run Free,” somewhat reminiscent of the hypnotic sonic washes created on non-coronavirus Wednesday nights in Rochester’s Little Theatre Café by the Margaret Explosion. Floating in that are the sometimes vivid, sometimes pedestrian images of Dylan’s lyrics, lulling you to sleep, then slapping you in the face, then tapping you on the shoulder. They mix clinical details of the Kennedy assassination with endless cultural references in ramblings too fresh to follow precise meter, but always confirmed with rhymes. And just when you think the song is going off into some kind of 1960s Aquarian romp, the Kennedy references return, echoing across the song as they did across the era, as if they shaped everything that came after, as if the counterculture and the movements it spawned were responses to that moment, to that Murder Most Foul. 

And what of the title? I remember an entire college literature class period being devoted to the three-word opening line of Moby Dick. This title feels like it could elicit a similar discussion. Its use of an archaic form begs the question, is the observer out of touch or perhaps seeking to express the long view of history? It uses words not typically associated with the Kennedy assassination. “Murder” makes it less regal, more familiar and immediate. “Foul” is a gentlemanly way to say, “out of bounds,” or more accusingly, that “It’s grossly offensive” or more bluntly, that “It stinks!” And this one isn’t just foul. It’s the most foul. And so on. 

When looking through old things, I sometimes reflect on how different the world might have been had some people lived: the Kennedy brothers and perhaps Martin Luther King and Sam Cooke, too. This song stirs all that up. It makes you think, this is how we got here. Via a murder most foul, engineered, I suspect, by someone whose request for a favor wasn’t honored. 

Photo of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez by Rowland Scherman – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=149559

‘Brothers No More’

For fans of The Band, the recently released movie, Once Were Brothers, is more than just a fun romp through the group’s catalog and mythology. It’s also first-person testimony in the long-running debate over whether or not The Band’s lead guitarist and primary songwriter Robbie Robertson is an asshole. 

That charge was made in round terms over the years by his late band mates Levon Helm and Rick Danko, most pointedly in Levon’s 1993 biography, This Wheel’s on Fire. Money was a central issue. As the writer of most of The Band’s original songs, Robbie gets most of the songwriting royalties from a catalog that includes cultural touchstones like “The Weight.” Levon claimed the songs were collaborations, so he should get royalties, too—a claim that became especially poignant when he went into bankruptcy after a tragic house fire. 

How would this movie color my view of the feud? I admit I came in with my guard up. Brothers is a Robbie-driven narrative, and I wasn’t a fan of his contributions to The Band’s acclaimed 1978 movie, The Last Waltz. Too many woe-is-me stories about “The Road.” Too many glamour shots of the maestro passionately coaxing magic from his Fender. Still, I bought the DVD, thinking the musical segments would be worth it. But even the music sometimes comes up short, literally, as verses were edited out of several of their songs—not what I expect from a concert film.  

At any rate, I’m relieved to report that in Brothers, Robbie was more likable. Rather than complain about the road, he spoke of his upbringing and the joy he found in the music he heard during visits to the Native American reservation where his mother was raised. And how he found inspiration for writing “The Weight” by reading the manufacturing sticker inside his Martin guitar, “made in Nazareth, Pa.,” hence the opening line, “I pulled into Nazareth.” Like how George Harrison’s “Handle Me With Care” was inspired by a packing carton. (Note to myself: Read more labels!)

A Lot To Like

Mixing such anecdotes with strong musical performances and vintage footage and photos, this film has a lot to like. And I gained new sympathy for Robbie. He was the most ambitious Band member, the one who kept pushing them, the one who was first to marry and have kids, the one who behaved most responsibly. When some members got lost in a fog of drugs and alcohol, I empathized with Robbie’s frustration. 

And yet, the movie still plays like Robbie’s attempt at controlling The Band’s narrative. His discussion of The Last Waltz seems revisionist, for example. Other Band members have claimed the film was Robbie’s project, and they went along with only partial awareness of its scope. But in this movie Robbie calls it a group effort and claims his intent was that The Band could still get back together. I checked though, and in the Last Waltz he was definitive that this was their last show, that he was done touring. 

My introduction to the feud Band members had with Robbie Robertson came when I interviewed Rick Danko for a newspaper review I wrote of a performance he did with Levon Helm in 1983. I asked why they were performing again. Didn’t they say in The Last Waltz that they were done? He jammed his finger into his chest and his face into mine and said with full diaphragm support, “I never said that. You never heard ME say that!” Years later, in 1998, my band, Watkins and the Rapiers, opened for him, and I took an opportunity in the green room to show him how he had answered my question 15 years earlier, above. “Yeah, that sounds like how I used to be,” he said with what appeared to be (and I hope actually was) real amusement. 

Robbie also makes the preposterous claim in Brothers that it would have been impossible for The Band to get back together. News flash: the other four did reform in 1983, continued after Richard Manual’s death in 1986 and stayed together until Rick Danko’s death in 1999. That’s a 16-year stretch—as long as the original group was together as The Band, The Hawks and the other names they concocted. Robbie was the only one who didn’t participate in this second life. Brothers makes no mention of the post-Robbie Band, nor that one of the brothers, Richard Manual, hung himself while touring with that outfit, a rather glaring omission. 

Who Wrote the Songs?

The movie briefly addresses the songwriting controversy as part of its passing mention of Levon’s later-life contempt for Robbie—and it was pretty much dismissed as a “Get-off-my-lawn!” argument.

I’ve always sympathized with Levon and his big-hearted approach to the music, and I initially supported his songwriting claim. But as I looked more closely, I found myself on Robbie’s side. No one disputes that he brought the songs in. If others then contributed to the bones of the song—the lyrics, the melody, the hooks—then they are co-writers. But nothing I’ve heard from Levon rises up to that level. His descriptions are more about arranging, not co-writing. 

Robbie has defended himself by pointing out that Levon rarely has songwriting credits even in his solo recordings. Of course, if Levon were here, he might point out that Robbie’s only hit songs are the ones Levon and his Band mates sing. Touché! 

And that’s where this controversy has settled. The mechanisms for paying the group’s members didn’t match the influence each had. And rather than find an innovative way to achieve equitable pay, Robbie hid in his technical correctness, while Levon made songwriting-credit claims that don’t hold up under scrutiny. 

One or the Other

Sometimes it’s best to walk away from a dysfunctional family mess, as Robbie did. Of course, you like to think that a real hero, a real brother, would find a way to help a brother in need. Robbie apparently never stepped up, nor did he appear to reconcile with Levon. In Brothers, Robbie says that when he got word of Levon’s impending death, he visited, but arrived too late. Levon was in a coma and didn’t reawaken. So Robbie prayed for him. Evidently that was as close as they came to reconciliation.

Ruminating on the movie after getting home, I stumbled upon an earlier brotherly reference from the Stage Fright album they were working on when the drug issues surfaced. Richard sings this Robbie-written lyric in “The Shape I’m In:” “Save your neck, or save your brother. Looks like it’s one or the other.” 

How personal—and prescient—those lines now seem. 

Photo at the top of the page © David Gahr.

The Public Sink of the Future

Of course!

That was my reaction when I first saw a sink that grouped the three hand washing enablers inches apart in proper deployment order: soap dispenser, faucet and hand drier. A one-stop washing experience made especially convenient by motion-activators. Soap dispensed with a swipe of the hand. Water ready when you are. Then the coup de grace: the hand drier. No more hands dripping walks to nearest paper towel dispenser—or worse, waiting in line for one. It’s like the automated car wash for hands. What more could you ask for?

Well, actually, the coronavirus gives us a glimpse of a new frontier. 

Proper washing requires 20 seconds of scrubbing, healthcare professionals remind us as we attempt to stop the spread of the virus. So how do you time it? With a timepiece? Your watch is on your wrist, which is involved in hand washing, so it’s not ideal. Your phone probably has a stopwatch, but then you are pressing and swiping, which isn’t convenient, and you’re doing it in a watery environment, which may damage your phone. Timing it in your head isn’t reliable. Some suggest singing a 20-second song like “Happy Birthday,” but that gets old after say, your 10,654th washing.

Then there’s the boredom factor. Twenty seconds is a long time to invest in a repetitive act that offers no distractions from TV or social media. 

What to do? In the future, I believe we’ll have sinks with voice-activated timers that play 20-second songs to signal the proper length of a hand-washing session, thereby addressing both the timing and the boredom factors. Sink users could select a song they know or ask “Siri de Bain” to select one for them. 

Standard selections might remind washers why it’s important to give their hands the full 20-second treatment. See “20 Seconds” and “Let’s Talk About Your Hands.”

20 Seconds
Let’s Talk About Your Hands

No doubt some will offer tongue-in-cheek observations, as in “I’m Washing My Hands.”

I’m Washing My Hands.

And some experimental artists will forgo hand washing altogether to provide more of a 20-second experience. Give a listen to “No Time For Fooling Around.” 

No Time For Fooling Around

With multiple sinks in the public restroom, this could result in cacophony, so the enabling technology will need to provide a methodology for precisely controlling sound waves to be audible within tightly prescribed areas. Something like the Get Smart TV series’ “Cone of Silence,” but invisible. 

So there’s the vision. Technologists: make it a reality. 

Meeting Up With Jon Batiste in the Eastman Lobby

Sometimes the action comes to you. 

We were in the balcony of the Eastman Theatre in Rochester when Late Show With Stephen Colbert Music Director Jon Batiste said his band had one more song to play, and they’ll meet us in the lobby. It was Second Line Time!

Batiste had foreshadowed the band’s offstage mobility in their opening number. Four musicians were onstage—Batiste on piano accompanied by bass, drums and percussion—but wasn’t that a horn we were hearing? When a sax player finally emerged from behind the fold of curtains on stage right, the applause he received was surely for his playing, but also expressed relief that we weren’t crazy—we HAD heard a sax. It kicked off a good show of mostly instrumental jazz. 

But now, the show was ending, and the band was filtering offstage while playing their final number. The players emerged in the audience, snaking around in the front rows, each with a mobile form of their instrument. Even the Cowboy-hatted drummer’s tambourine was still sounding in the house PA system. 

Everyone in the balcony was on their feet, but few were moving, so we slipped behind the people standing in front of their chairs and joined the stream of folks headed to the lobby. Descending the second, final flight of stairs the faint acoustic sound of the band seeped into our awareness, and was suddenly louder than what came through the PA. The band was somewhere in the mass of people swirling about in the lobby. We pushed on until we could move no further, hearing, but not seeing them. I pulled out my phone, shooting video from up high, thinking the camera might capture things I was unable to see live.

Then the seas parted, and sure enough, Batiste emerged perfectly framed in my iPhone. Turns out he’s about my height—not as tall as I expected. They circled up in front of us for a solo or two. By then my wife had her iPhone rolling video as well. What a thrill, to have the band cozy up to us that way.

After a few solos, Batiste led the second line right out the door where they camped on the sidewalk under the Eastman Theatre marquis along Gibbs Street. We followed them. What else could you do? Maybe they would march us to an ice cream store and buy everyone a cone.

Well, that didn’t happen. But we weren’t complaining. 

Randy Rainbow Makes Show Tunes Great Again

In the afternoon of Friday, Sept. 20, there was a new twist in the Trump whistleblower scandal. The Wall Street Journal reported that in a recent phone call the U.S. president pressured the Ukrainian head of state eight times to investigate the Ukrainian business dealings of Hunter Biden, the son of Trump’s potential 2020 presidential opponent Joe Biden. 

On our way that night to the Kodak Theatre on the Ridge to see Randy Rainbow, who has made a name for himself by posting parody songs about Donald Trump’s crazy ride in the White House, we speculated on whether this latest scandal would be part of the show. No parody song about it yet, we predicted, but probably a mention. 

We were wrong. There was no mention. And frankly, I was disappointed. I’d come to the show straight from riding my exercise bike to the latest breaking news from Wolf Blitzer’s Situation Room. Randy’s show felt like when I tuned into the Late Show after a day of wacky Trump revelations only to find that Colbert is on vacation and tonight’s show was filmed three months ago. It’s funny, but it’s not the fix I’m looking for. 

Perhaps it’s unfair to judge a show based on whether or not it provides your personal fix. Randy Rainbow’s song parodies were, like his YouTube posts, spot on. “There is nothing like a wall,” sung to the tune of “There is Nothing Like a Dame.” Someday we’ll find it, the Russian connection,” to the tune of “The Rainbow Connection.” “Super callous fragile ego extra braggadocios,” to “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” “Rudy and the Beast” to “Beauty and the Beast.” They go on and on.

Fittingly for our data-driven era, his show mixed his live performance with big-screen video, sometimes timing voiceovers to work with his live music, sometimes edited to make Randy appear to be interviewing the Orange One. In those, he’s an endearing character with a great sense of comic timing. Onstage he’s also a bit of a whirling dervish, changing his costume frequently from black tie to red sequins to ruby slippers. 

But how do you keep your song parodies current with the never-ending onslaught of misbehaviors and scandals that spew from this real estate magnate turned president? It’s a difficult assignment, but Randy doesn’t back down. In a Q&A session with the audience he said he turns his videos around in 48 hours—all the writing, arranging, recording, editing and posting. Whew! 

Of course, that level of timeliness is pretty much impossible when you’re on the road. Rainbow had a reasonable solution, arranging his parodies in somewhat chronological order to give a sort of history of the Trump presidency, building up to the most recent atrocities. His latest, posted Aug. 29, played on Trump’s Aug, 21 retweet of praise that Israeli Jews “love him like the second coming of God,” set to the tune of Jesus Christ Superstar: “Cheeto Christ, Cheeto Christ. He’s like if Jesus was pumpkin spiced.”

It was funny, but my inner Situation Room needed more. Not that I’d given up on finding the Russian connection, it was just that, at this moment, I was hot on the Ukraine. Sorry Randy. You can write that off as my problem. You know, and the nation’s.