Thursday, September 30, 2010

Happy Anniversary, Biscuit!

Biscuit and I met in the early mid-90's, when bangs were tall, boots were short, and all the cool girls drove Miatas.  I made pizza for a group of people on one of the first nights we met. This apparently made a positive impact on her opinion of me.* The pizza, and a good base of friendship, helped us get through some up and down times when we started dating a couple of years later.

After five years together, we decided that we were probably not going to be able to be rid of each other, so we got married like it was 1999. Since neither of us was interested in a big production, we snuck off to Barbados on a cruise to make an honest man of me. We lied right in the face of friends and family who said we were running off to get married. We're still denying it to a few people.

James the limo driver. Quite possibly the coolest person I have ever met.

The day itself could not have been nicer. A limo ride to the government building to fill out the paperwork, a quick stop at the florist for a bouquet, and we were off to the church on the beach.

No matter what anyone tells you, this is all it takes to get married.

The wedding coordinator served as Biscuit's maid of honor, and the limo driver was my best man. He even shot a roll of film with our camera, since we had opted to skip the photographer. Also because it was 1999, and cameras had film.

You are so jealous right now.

Some vows, a little smooching, champagne toast, a quick walk on the beach, and we were back napping in our cabin by noon.

What were you doing five minutes after your wedding?

We woke up a couple of hours later to the sound of the drunkards returning from the pirate party ship. We knew that they had been pirating it up, because we heard several people "haaaarrrrghhh" into the water below. And they definitely looked like they had been at sea for some time.

Never have so many been so drunk so early in the day. 
Except for every other day this thing sails, I suspect.

That was 11 years ago. Tonight, to commemorate the event, I will make a pizza, she will open a nice chianti, we will eat and drink entirely too much, dessert on a fistful of Tums, and fall asleep before getting around to the stuff you young people do on your anniversaries. You know what I'm talking about, don't you? Thought so.


I can't believe it's been 11 years. While on the one hand it seems like Biscuit and I have been together as long as I can remember, it feels way shorter than my first marriage, which seemed to go on for-ever. I wouldn't trade it for the world. Happy Anniversary, Biscuit!

* Biscuit is all about good food. That's why I'm always trying to learn to cook new things. When I met her, all I could make were pizza, chili, and cheese toast.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Road Stories: Ridin' the storm out, Part 2

This is one of the few artifacts to survive the ex-wife's great purge of 1984, 
when she threw away anything that meant anything to me, in retaliation 
for making her stay behind and sell the house when I got transferred.

So when we left our intrepid hero, I was screwing up the climax of REO Speedwagon's concerts and getting reamed for it every other day. I called the office after almost every show, begging them to ship me the real special effects board. But they were on some sort of cost-cutting kick, and decided that I should let Flash Gordon rewire the controller they had given me, because at least that would shut him up. I was positive this was a bad idea, but was given no choice.

Now, in their defense, the bomb cues were not coming off as planned. In my defense, this wasn't my fault. Each band member was playing to a different beat, the lighting director seemed to have no sense of timing, and the equipment was faulty. I ended up doing this sort of thing for many of the biggest acts of the day, including work for the late Kirby Wyatt, SHOWCO's own lighting director, a man whose fastidious attention to detail and standards of perfection make Tim Gunn look like a Squidbilly by comparison. This tour was the first and only time I ever had a complaint about cues.

The rewiring happened on a day off we had before REO headlined the Rockford Jam, an outdoor show at the Rockford Speedway in Rockford, IL. If you've never been to Rockford, don't sweat it. Life Magazine once said it was "as nearly typical as any city can be." It's probably best known in the rock and roll context as the home of Cheap Trick. The Rockford Jam that year featured Head East ("Never Been Any Reason"), The Cars, REO, and someone I can't remember. Since Bob was traveling on a different bus, there was no time for testing his work, but Flash wasn't concerned.

The Rockford Jam was remarkable, mostly for its lack of planning and nightmare logistics. Whoever produced this piece of shit knew nothing about outdoor shows. We had no alternate way in, so we sat in traffic for almost two hours before arriving backstage, where there was no place to park the trucks or buses. We rolled or carried the equipment piece by piece through the mud, and by the time we got the gear onstage and plugged in, it was time for the first act to start. There were no walkways cordoned off in the crowd, so every time one of us needed to go from the stage to the lighting and sound consoles at the center of the infield, we were required to walk over the crowd, trying not to step on the people, or their growing collection of fluids and other leavings. This also meant we had to run all of our cables over or around people*, and hope that no one unplugged anything. The whole day was a come-from-behind clusterfuck of epic proportions.

To make matters worse, the music was horrible. You don't take a job like this if you don't love live music, but Holy Hell this was bad. I knew by then that REO would be bad, but I assumed some of the other groups would make up for it. The first band, whose name escapes me, reminded me of the band that played my junior high dances. Head East sounded like they had all been born deaf. Worst of all, I had really been looking forward to seeing The Cars, but they were bored, wasted, off-key, and thoroughly unimpressive. Eventually, it was time for the main event.

Unfortunately, Flash Gordon wasn't even smart enough to realize that a fog curtain would be worse than useless outdoors, so I got to drag all of that crap through the mud, knowing that we would be lucky if any fog made it to the stage at all. And also knowing that it would put the band in a foul mood once again. I finally got the pyrotechnics prepped during what should have been dinner, plugged in my newly rewired pyro box, and waited for my cue.

This is the part where I have to teach you more than you ever wanted to know about concert pyrotechnics. A flashpot is generally some sort of metal container, wired with an electrical cord. The ones that are sold commercially are a couple of inches on a side, and are recommended to use up to a half teaspoon of flash powder. We used roasting pans and washtubs, and loaded between a half an ounce and a quarter pound of powder in each. An electric match or squib would be connected to the terminals on the pan, and placed in contact with the powder. When current is applied to the circuit, that's rock and roll.

Image from here.

There are any number of ways to close the circuit, from foot switches to plungers to just touching bare wires to a battery. Our board used 12 volts direct current generated by a 110 volt transformer, and had military-grade safety switches, like the setup shown in the professional grade artwork below.

Artists misconception: this isn't even right. There were
twelve switches, a push button for each, and one key 
to arm the whole system. Just work with me on this.

Each flashpot had it's own circuit, with an LED, a safety switch, and a little red button. When the key was turned, the LED's for correctly wired circuits would glow green. When the rocker cover was raised and the switch was thrown, the circuit was armed, and the light changed to red. After that, pushing the button would set off the explosion. Or at least that was the plan.

Mis-wired circuits didn't light, and I always liked to turn the key a minute or two early, so that I would have time to run around and fix any connections that may have come loose during the show. This time when I turned the key, one of the pots exploded. Hmm, that was weird. The band members turned to me as one, and gave me a look that was, by now, all too familiar. All the lights were green except for the one that had just gone off, so I waited. A half minute later, when I threw the first switch to arm the first flashpot, the one at the front right corner of the stage went off. This was right in the middle of Gary Richrath's big guitar solo, so Kevin Cronin just happened to be dancing around on the right front corner of the stage, and the explosion was about three feet from him. If I close my eyes I can still see the fury in his face, his bro-fro blowing in the breeze from the big wind machines onstage, as he dropped any pretense of being involved in the music and pointed at me in the expression that universally means, "You are dead!" He remembered where he was after a second or two, and turned back to the crowd.

Flash was thoroughly panicked by now, and was yelling into the headsets, "Turn it off! Turn it off!" I flipped down the rocker switches to disarm the rest of the pots, and another bomb went off. When I turned off the key, one of the washtubs exploded. By now, the band barely knew where they were in the song, and everyone backstage was looking at me. The real bomb cues were approaching, and the best way to disarm one is to set it off, so in the end I just randomly turned things on and flipped switches until  all of the remaining pots were expended. A couple were even on the beat. To this day, I can't tell you what the problem was, but it seemed like everything I touched was connected directly to some common firing circuit.

As soon as the show was over,** Kevin Cronin stormed over and gave me a cursing such as I have never heard. And I've worked retail. He cursed me, my company, my ancestry, and pretty much anything else he could think of, for probably two minutes. He was actually clenching his fists and stomping his little feet, he was so angry. It was like Richard Simmons impersonating Yosemite Sam. I may not have helped when I responded to this tirade with a cheerful-sounding, "Thanks for your feedback!" as he walked away. He turned and gave me another round, and I think he would have jumped on me if I hadn't been about twice his size.

I assumed I was fired, which was going to be the only thing that saved the day. Unfortunately, once people calmed down and things were explained, the band sent one of their minions to apologize for Kevin's outburst, and I think they even sent me a beer. Of course, not one of them was man enough to come himself, and Kevin always managed to be somewhere other than where I was after that.

By now, even the shop was convinced, and they shipped out my effects board the next day. One of our sound guys rewired the control box to bypass all of the safety circuits and interlocks to get us through the next couple of shows. I threw it in the dumpster behind whatever arena we were playing when the real board arrived.

I stayed on the tour for a few more weeks, when I was saved by Paul McCartney's tour to Japan. He was scheduled to use every special effect we owned, including bubble machines, so I was needed back in Dallas to get all that together and put it on a boat to Japan. That ended up being a fiasco of a different color, but that's a story for another time.

I'm only now getting to the point where I'm able to listen to a few REO songs all the way through. The onstage sound mixer for the tour, who has remained a good friend of mine, still can't make it past the opening synthesizer blast from "Ridin' the Storm Out" without suffering a minor panic attack.

* Typically, the control cables were run along the edges of arena floors, or along the side of the cordoned walkways for outdoor shows. This also tended to be the most convenient place for people who overindulged, or maybe suffered from hairballs, to relieve themselves of their gustatory burdens. You did not want to be the person whose job it was to roll up these cables at the end of the night, especially for a band like REO. And you could find the box those cables traveled in by smell alone.

** And I mean as soon as the show was over. He didn't even leave the stage after the song. The people in the front row were treated to an encore they did not expect.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Road Stories: Ridin' the storm out

So I've really been avoiding telling this story, but after Johnny Virgil wrote about taking his wife to see REO Speedwagon, I started having flashbacks of the tour that was largely responsible for me leaving the road. I still remember standing backstage in some arena in California, talking to the future ex on the phone, with Kevin Cronin in the background singing, "Golden country, your face is so red-uh," and hearing myself say, "I have GOT to find something different to do for a living."

REO had already been around for what seemed like forever when the 9 Lives tour kicked off. During my high school years, they rolled through town every three months or so, with Deep Purple, BTO, or Brownsville Station. One would headline a tour, and one of the others would open for them. When I heard that we had landed them as a client, and that I would be doing special effects for the tour, I discovered that I was drawing a blank on their music, so I asked one of the guys in the shop what songs they did. He said, "Oh, you know REO. They do ... uh ... umm ... let's go ask Garvey." I got exactly the same reaction from about a dozen other people over the next couple of days.* Finally, someone came up with Ridin' the Storm Out, which broke the memory block for all of us, and everyone started blurting out the names of REO songs: Golden Country, Roll With the Changes, Keep on Loving You, 157 Riverside Avenue, etc. I felt better. I knew and liked all of those songs, and midwestern rockers generally knew how to throw a tour.

The good feeling started to change as soon as we got to rehearsal. REO was nearing the height of their popularity, but they were also coming apart as a group. They suffered from the occupational hazard of terminal self-importance, facilitated by sycophants and douchebags, and intensified by impressive amounts of chemicals -- even by rock and roll standards. There were at least three gigantic egos onstage, and several more in the wings.

Gary Richrath, the lead guitarist, was undoubtedly the most talented, but he was fighting some pretty serious demons. We calculated that he was probably losing money while on the road. He tended to huff when he played (think Lamaze breathing), and by the end of the night there was a white crust encasing his microphone cover. I'm sure we could have scraped that off and gotten quite a buzz, but no one ever got that desperate. At least, not that I know of.

Kevin Cronin, the lead singer, was sure that he was the most talented, and suffered from major Napoleon syndrome. He insisted on playing guitar when he wasn't too busy prancing around in his little turquoise spandex pants, despite the fact that it sounded like someone sawing a guitar in half with a hacksaw. The sound man kept his guitar turned off in the house, so the audience couldn't really hear it, but it was loud and proud onstage, and contributed mightily to the cacophony that we endured nightly. Kevin was an amateur pharmacologist, and partially as a result, his mood swings were dramatic. One day we ran up on him sitting in the floor of a hotel lobby, pulling laundry from one bag and putting it in another, muttering to himself. We just kept walking.

The other members of the band were generally no more egotistical than your average rock star, but the environment was so toxic that they were always being pulled into one dispute or another. The road managers liked to play the band members off of each other to get whatever they wanted. The result was band members who barely spoke to each other, and a road staff that was not exactly the elite of the business. "Motor," their drum roadie was good, although he got a little weird when he went on the all-fruit diet. Most of the rest ... not so much. Oh, and the band sounded like crap most every night.

Without mentioning names, the biggest pain in my particular ass was Bob "Flash" Gordon, the lighting director. I will spare you my critique of his lighting style, which wasn't really my biggest problem with him. The real issue was that he was sure he knew everything important, and most of everything else. I've worked successfully with a lot of people like him since -- mostly Army generals -- but I was younger then, and I considered his existence and success a personal affront to all that was fair and decent.** I hated him a lot.

I forget exactly what effects I had to manage for the tour, but it wasn't a whole lot by my standards. We've already talked about the Spinal Tap quality fog curtain that opened the show. The other major effect was a series of fiery explosions during the last song, Ridin' the Storm Out. One of the reasons I was on the tour was that we had recently invented some giant flashpots built from #2 washtubs, and I was the only one at the time who knew how to load them, or that could be trusted not to blow up something important. We had developed them for use in the Superdome, and they created a flash and concussion in a regular arena that was hard to believe. Or justify. We had four of these that exploded together at the climax of the song (sort of a Star Wars Deathstar effect), and followed eight smaller explosions that built up to it.

Picture from here.

The effect was really rather cool, except for two problems. The first had to do with my control board. We had two dedicated special effects boards, but one was in the shop for repairs, and the other was out with Nazareth, or Genesis or somebody. So the biggest burnout in the electronics shop soldered together a little box specifically for the first leg of this tour, until we could get back to Dallas and pick up the other board. The box was crap, and for various, mostly boring reasons, it tended to take half a beat between the time I pushed the button and the time the explosion happened. But only sometimes. While this would probably be fine in a mining operation, it was definitely not close enough for rock and roll. Bob was constantly trying to convince me that he could fix it "in a matter of minutes."

The other problem was that Bob wanted the sound of the explosion, not the flash, to match the music. Like lightning and thunder, the boomy part tends to lag behind the flashy part, especially if you are sitting a few hundred feet away. So he would call the cue a split second before the beat. I don't think he realized that the timing would be different at different points in the hall. I don't think Bob took a lot of science in school.

You know who wasn't sitting a few hundred feet away? The band. From their point of view, the bombs were going off early. Or late. Or both. And since they were already pissed about the fog curtain, and each other, and their lives, and everything else, and since this particular effect closed the show, it was the last thing they had a chance to be pissed about. So one or another of them would come over and yell at me and call me names every couple of nights. They even threatened to replace me a couple of times. I don't think they liked it when I begged them to go through with it.

So after about a month of this, we arrived at the day that would bring the worst concert I have ever seen, and convince me once and for all that this would not be my life's work. But that will have to wait for Part 2. This post is already getting very long, and I'm starting to feel like there are spiders on me. I'm going to need a whiskey float and a couple of hours of Bob Dylan before I can continue.

Updated: Part 2 is finished.

* I swear to Baby Jesus that this part is true. I never saw anything like it. We were all really familiar with the band. It was just that no one could come up with a song. And these people knew music better than any hipster you ever met.

** I grew up watching way too many westerns and WW II movies, and reading about people like Don Quixote and Robin Hood.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Window world

I know. I've been busy.

Anyway, I promised a conclusion to the story of our latest home improvement project. It was really kind of anticlimactic, which is one reason I haven't been more motivated to write about it. I was sure that our adventure replacing the 40 year old windows was going to lead* to a hilarious post, including Monte Python-like shots of huge chunks of glass embedded in one of us, and arterial blood spurting all over the patio. Or at least some disgusting animal carcasses that we would find in the wall when we pulled out the old, rotten frames.

Alas, the whole thing went like clockwork. At least maybe if we're talking about an old wooden clock that has been left outside for a long time.

For those just joining us, our house was designed and built forty years ago by an engineering professor at the university where I work. She had very definite ideas about what she wanted. Most everything in the house is nonstandard, and much of it was built onsite. Our living room -- dining room combination** is paneled in native cypress, and features three large picture windows with cypress frames. Unfortunately, the water splashing on the patio had rotted the outsides of the frames, like so:

They didn't look quite this bad until we pulled off the paint and trim. 

Funny story. A few years ago, when we first noticed this problem because of gaps under the windows that lizards were crawling through, I temporarily filled the holes with Super Foam, the duck tape of the twenty-first century.  This was going to last the few weeks it took to make new frames. It was lovely, and Biscuit was thrilled with the look.

No, the tape is not left over from hurricane season.  We were 
at least attempting not to kill ourselves removing this glass.

Enter a couple of job changes, a hurricane, and the absolute impossibility of buying clear cypress lumber that is ten inches wide and two inches thick, and we lived with the foam longer than I care to admit. And since some of these boards cost more than the glass we put in the windows, I was being very careful.

Also, I removed the inside trim from the frames when this whole thing started, so that I could get exact dimensions and see exactly how the boxes were constructed. The trim laid on the floor of the dining room for the duration of the project, just to add to the overall trashy effect.

Cats love home improvement. 

But all good things must end, and eventually even I was able to finish the window frames. Biscuit applied the paint (outside), stain and polyurethane (inside), since she has just the right amount of OCD for wood finishing. All we had to do was wait for the hottest weekend of the summer, and we were ready to go.

The work itself went surprisingly smoothly, and there was only one brief episode of loud cursing and minor bleeding. Once we escalated to the 2 lb. hammer, and after a few minutes of planing, things slid more or less smoothly into place.***

For some reason, it never occurred to me to take pictures of the frames before installing them. 
Combination of wine and obliviousness, I think. 

We lived with plywood in the frames for a couple weeks, until we were able to get the glass people out.

You have no idea how happy I am to finally have this done.

Just in time for the annual hummingbird migration. So now all we have to do is paint the rest of the house. And I can get back to finishing the bathroom remodel I was working on when this whole window thing started. Seriously, it's been going on for a long time.

P.S. In other news, I spent a week at a super-nerd computer graphics conference in Los Angeles. I learned how to create a virtual water droplet that is up to 40% more watery than the current state of the art, as well as many, many other things equally as interesting. I considered writing about it, but couldn't think of a single person who reads this that would not want to poke their eyes out after one paragraph. It's already happening, isn't it?

* I found out while reviewing academic papers this past weekend that an increasing number of people have stopped using "led" as the past tense of "lead," and just treat it like "read." WTF, people!? Is us just give up on word forms and spelling completedly?

** I said it was the sixties, right?

*** That's what she said. ****

**** With the impending departure of Steve Carell from The Office, I'm afraid I'm going to have to retire twss, as well. The wife is devastated.