Youth Has An Expiration Date


It is somewhat amusing to older folks to hear pop song lyrics and see pop song videos in which handsome young men worship at the altar of beautiful young women. Oh those words of eternal passion, pledged by the young. How quickly terms and conditions come into play as familiarity grows, as obligations mount, as the marriage ties that bind, bind.

And what of the aging process, that chronological decay of flesh that robs us all of youth’s bounty? I find it hard to visualize a wrinkled old man and woman in a pop song video, singing to each other:

Almost paradise
We're knockin' on heaven's door
Almost paradise
How could we ask for more?
I swear that I can see forever in your eyes
Paradise*


Herman, Marjorie & Bess Allison ~ Redondo Beach, California 1917

Youth passes, passion passes and we move on. Yet I remember spending the night at my grandparents’ house many years ago when they were in their seventies. I woke up early the next morning and peeked into their bedroom to see if they were still sleeping. I just happened to see them waking up. My old, wrinkled grandfather gave my old, wrinkled grandmother a kiss and said “Good morning.”

Almost paradise.



*From the song “Almost Paradise” written by Eric Carmen and Dean Pitchford



~ by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved

Tuesday


















I found a piece of paper in a parking lot.

It had been run over numerous times, torn and trampled, faded by the sun and still damp from a light morning mist.

Because I was not in a hurry; because I was not wearing earbuds and distracted by music; because I was not staring at a cell phone screen; because I was not talking to anyone; because everything has design, color, shape and texture, I picked up the square piece of paper.

It had been some kind of glossy, card-stock advertisement for a nightclub, probably stuck under the windshield wiper of a parked car long ago.

Looking closer, I saw the face of my lost love, a strand of her curly long auburn hair falling across her bare, thin shoulder and finely sculpted collar bone.

She was smiling and looking skyward, as if she could see all the way to heaven.

That was Tuesday.




~ by Russ Allison Loar
~ Artwork by a parking lot
© All Rights Reserved

Gigs — Part Two



When I first began performing in public, it was at high school sock hops—yes, they called them sock hops because they were held in the gymnasium where you had to remove your shoes so you wouldn’t scuff the polished wooden floor. One of our high school gigs was called the “Heaven and Hell Dance.” The gymnasium was partitioned in half, and a loud, raucous, rock-and-roll band played the Hell side. We were the heavenly band, the Crescendos, playing soft, romantic songs for amorous young high-schoolers who wanted to dance close together. Very close together.

I will always remember my best friend and piano player John Baer pounding away on an old upright piano that had been moved onto the stage for us. Its only amplification was by way of a bad microphone. It would be a long time before he actually owned an amplified keyboard. He had to hit the keys so hard for the sound not to be buried by the drums and electric guitar that his fingers bled.

After a year spent learning how to sing in Men’s Chorus, I joined the high school folk music group called the Travelers. In addition to numerous school and community functions, we also played a few gigs at local folk music clubs, including a one-nighter at the relatively famous Ice House in Pasadena, owned by the husband of my half-sister who I did not know existed. I would meet her for the first time 39 years later.

After high school I formed a rock band named Pride (Click here for website), playing my original music at various high school and college concerts. Then it was on to various nightclub and hotel gigs playing the popular songs of the time. I cannot count the number of times I played “Proud Mary” during my gigging years. But the most intricate torture came from repeated performances of “Tie A Yellow Ribbon Around The Ole Oak Tree,” a tune that stubbornly resisted any kind of creative interpretation.

I spent six months on the road playing in the Midwest and Alaska, but soon tired of living in hotels. Perhaps the worst part of the six-nights-a-week life of a club musician was playing the same sets of tunes with no variation, no improvisation at all. And so I left the road and went back to performing at nightclubs and hotels in Southern California, interspersed with many recording sessions and concerts of original music at small clubs around Hollywood.


I’d always written songs and short compositions, and was under contract for a while as a songwriter after high school, but nothing came of it. I eventually asked to be let out of my contract, as I could not manufacture the inspiration to write the kind of commercial tunes my producer was so fond of. He’d had successful artists in the past, and years later transformed his Southern California schoolteacher wife into the popular country western persona known as Donna Fargo.

In the years that followed I wrote and recorded hundreds of songs and compositions, but never launched an actual career as an artist. Nobody was interested, and I’ve always been rather unambitious. The fun of creating and playing music always seemed like enough for me. The only way I made money from music was as a guitar player doing gigs.

As I approached the age of thirty, I’d been doing one-nighters for about five years with a group that was consistently booked by some very high-end clients. It was great fun and on occasion some very accomplished and famous players joined our group.

On one particularly memorable evening, we were playing at The Bistro in Beverly Hills, an exclusive restaurant and watering hole whose parking lot was filled with Rolls Royce automobiles. Our drummer that night was studio musician Ralph Humphrey (Click here for website), who had played on Frank Zappa's "Overnight Sensation" album. The Bistro was the hangout of Johnny Carson, who just happened to be in the bar that night. We were playing for a private function in a banquet room. Anyone from the bar who wanted to use the restroom had to pass through a corner of the room where we were playing. When Johnny Carson suddenly appeared on his way to the restroom we were in the middle of a song, but piano player John Baer quickly jumped into the Tonight Show theme. Johnny laughed and pointed at us as if to say, “OK, you got me.”

The musician years were great fun and there is a special kind of bliss one feels being inside an energy-filled, spirit-filled musical performance, playing with other inspired musicians for an appreciative and sometimes intoxicated audience. Unlike club and hotel gigs, the one-nighters allowed us to do far more improvising. With no club owner or hotel manager looking over our shoulders, we were very free to have a lot of fun with the music.


At some point, adolescence, no matter how protracted, must end. For me, it was the approach of the birth of my first son, Joshua, that signaled I was overdue for a life change.


There are so many illusions the amateur and professional artist share, making it especially hard to objectively measure one’s talents and potential for success. But by working with so many talented musicians, I knew I was not among the more gifted or accomplished players. I remember sitting up late one night, taking a cold, hard look at what I’d been doing all those years, trying to see where it all would lead. I could not see a future for myself in music.


My best talents were in composing, yet I was self-taught and way too esoteric to achieve any kind of real success as a popular songwriter. So at age 28, the only way forward for me was to return to college. I eventually decided to major in journalism, knowing I had greater gifts as a writer than as a musician. I was determined to study the most intricate details of writing, not to skip any steps, to dissect the craft as I’d never done with music.


Music was always more of a lifestyle than a career for me, an adolescent lifestyle. I’d put it off as long as I could, but alas, it was finally time to grow up. Yet after my journalism career came to an end, I started composing and recording again, made so much easier this time by the advent of keyboards that can emulate so many different instruments, and digital recording technology: Russ Loar Music.com (Click here for website) I've even been under contract to a sound library and had some of my music used for cable television. And so music is not completely absent from my life, although as the years go by, it is receding.

Music has always been one of the toughest life lessons for me, in that no matter how strong my passion, no matter how strong my desire, there is no substitute for talent.

It's the hard, hard lesson all aspiring artists eventually learn—especially hard for those of us who have not been struck by lightning.




~ by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved

Gigs — Part One






M usic has always been the strongest drug for me, one of the only things in this world that could clearly express the complex tangle of my emotions, so it was quite natural that I wanted to be a musician, to live in this ethereal realm of sound.


I spent a substantial part of my life as a guitar player and occasional singer, my vocal talents being the weaker of the two. I started playing guitar at age twelve after summer camp. My camp counselor played guitar and I was impressed. He was the older brother I’d never had, and his skills on the guitar were so rudimentary that I was not intimidated.

I started out with a horrible guitar from Sears with the strings so high off the fret board they cut into my fingers before the necessary calluses formed. I’d taken trumpet lessons earlier in life, but never bonded with the instrument. After all, it was 1963 and the Beatles were invading popular music. The guitar was the way to learn their songs.

During my first year of high school, I often looked over my backyard fence to watch my next door neighbor Keith rehearsing with his surf band. He played drums. I could see and hear them through the house’s sliding glass doors. O yes, that’s definitely what I wanted to do. I wanted to play in a band.

At various times of my life I’ve seen the future just before it’s come. When my wife was pregnant with our first child we went looking for a house to rent. Finding a "For Rent" sign in front of an old house sitting high above the street in San Pedro overlooking the Los Angeles Harbor, I remember walking up the stairs for the first time, knowing that my young family would be walking up those stairs many more times in the future. Before even seeing the inside of the house, I knew we would live there. I knew the next chapter of our lives would begin there.

It happened again after I’d graduated years later with a degree in journalism. During one of my many unsuccessful job interviews, the editor of a small newspaper had me sit behind a desk in the newsroom while I waited. Looking at the computer keyboard at my fingertips while reporters around me answered phones and typed furiously, I knew that was where I belonged. I knew I’d be working in a newsroom somewhere.

So in the same way, looking over the wall at my neighbor Keith’s surf band, I knew the next chapter of my life would be spent playing music.

I’d met a gifted piano player during summer school before my freshman year at West Covina High School by the name of John Baer. He had astounded students gathered in the music room one day by playing an improvised version of “Lullaby of Birdland” on the baby grand piano. The high school music director, who had spent his early years as a professional piano player, also watched in awe. After this 15-year-old prodigy finished his jaw-dropping performance, the students asked the music director to play, who promptly said, “I’m not going to follow that!”

John and I joined with our neighbor Keith and a saxophone player named Gary to form my first band, The Crescendoes, which should have been spelled, Crescendos. Our first gig was a dance for young people at the South Hills Country Club. We played “Moon River,” “The Girl From Ipanema,” and other light jazz tunes along with our best imitation of rock & roll and surf music. But we steadfastly refused to play “Louie Louie.” After all, we had artistic integrity. That wouldn't last long.


It was the beginning of a long and often amusing musical collaboration for John and I. We would perform, compose and record music together for the next 15 years, until I finally abandoned my haphazard music career for another stab at college.




~ by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved

Lost In The Desert
















I was in Egypt when I was 15, but it took many years for me to realize
where I'd been and what I'd really seen.



~ by Russ Allison Loar (1st camel on left!)
© All Rights Reserved

I Slapped My Father, Hard



















I  slapped my father hard, a clean open-fisted slap that sent his bifocals skidding across the kitchen floor.


It was the culmination of my accumulated rage against that man. It was a reaffirmation of the difference between us, of the vow I’d made to never, ever become anything at all like him. It was complete rejection, without hesitation.

It was a vow often repeated but first intoned when I was eight years old, the morning after The Dream. It was a dream that would both instruct and haunt me for the rest of my life. In The Dream, I saw my parents as I’d often seen them late in the evening, from behind a canvas shade pulled down to cover the glass-paneled door that separated my tiny bedroom from the family room where they spent their evenings watching television. My makeshift bedroom was originally a den. Although their house was built by an architect, it was not designed for two children. I was the second child.

By curling the edge of the shade back a bit with my thumb and forefinger, I could watch television shows that were on past my bedtime, and I could watch my parents. I discovered my mother smoked. She had never, ever smoked in front of me or my older sister, and especially not in front of her parents who lived next door, who would have been horrified. I also saw my parents drink. Sometimes they filled the house with strangers who talked loud and drank and talked louder and drank more and filled the house with smoke and loud frightening laughter surrounding and invading my tiny dark room.

My parents acted gracious and kind when observed by others, but alone at home they were troubled and angry. I was often jolted out of sleep in the middle of the night by the sobbing and screaming of my mother, anger and accusation from my father. I knew this meant I would be severely disciplined the next day for the smallest transgression. I would be hit. It might be a slap across the face, a spanking or repeated blows during the frenzy of unharnessed rage.

I spent most of my younger years assuming guilt, wondering why I was such a bad child, deserving of so much punishment. But as I grew older, I developed a growing awareness I was not really the cause of their anger, just the excuse.


THE DREAM:

I was standing next to the glass-paneled door in the dark of my room and pulled back the shade just enough to see my parents turning off the television. They began pulling at their hair, finally with much effort pulling off what turned out to be masks, revealing their true faces, the faces of wolves. After removing their clothing, they were fully transformed. They snarled and snickered as they walked on four legs toward their bedroom and out of my sight, malevolently amused at their success in hiding their true identities.

The next morning I vowed I would never give in to these wild beasts, these devourers. I would fight them. I would defend myself. I knew their secret.




~ by Russ Allison Loar
~ Artwork by Kevin Hensels
© All Rights Reserved

Life On The Moon?
















M y grandfather Herman Allison, born August 4, 1885, in Morgan's Mill, Texas, once told me that when he was a schoolboy, a topic for debate was:
"Is the moon inhabited?"




~ Words and artwork by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved

Notable People I Have Met ~ Part Seven



Don Callender ~ Marie Callender's founder


   I was always a rather small cog in the wheel of American journalism, yet I was lucky in meeting notable and accomplished people. I sought them out whenever the opportunity arose, wanting more than anything to hear the stories of how these extraordinary people succeeded and how their thought processes worked.

   I was lucky at the very beginning of my journalism career. I’d only written a few stories during my internship in 1984 at The Orange County Register when the editor suggested I write a story about a newly remodeled Marie Callender’s restaurant in Tustin, California, nearing completion. After contacting the restaurant manager, she mentioned that the founder of the restaurant chain, Don Callender, would be at the restaurant in a few days and I could interview him then. I jumped at the chance.



   When I walked into the restaurant for my lunch meeting with the 57-year-old Don Callender, he eyed me suspiciously until I told him I was the reporter from The Orange County Register he was expecting. He said, “When I saw your shiny shoes I thought: Oh no, here’s another one of these guys from the city." He said shiny-shoed city inspectors were making it difficult for him to open the remodeled restaurant.

   The luncheon interview lasted several hours. He was eager to tell me about the origins of his 112-restaurant chain, how it began with his mother, Marie, making pies for restaurants. “My mother was a good cook at home,” Callender said. “She made good pastries and she was working for a place that had a little lunch counter and she made pies.”

    Callender was generous with his time as we ate lunch, telling me how his parents, Cal and Marie Callender, began a wholesale pie business in 1947 to help supplement the trailer park family’s meager income. They operated out of a rented 20-by-20-foot Quonset hut in Long Beach. Callender delivered his mother’s pies on his bicycle.

   “I grew up on dirt streets and outhouses,” Callender told me. “We started with a rolling pin and 700 bucks. I used to go to work at 11 o’clock at night and work till 5 the next afternoon.”

   The first Marie Callender’s coffee and pie shop opened in 1964, in Orange. In 1986, Callender sold the chain of 120 restaurants to Ramada Inc. for a reported $80 million.

   Callender said his success was born of a strong work ethic and a close-knit family. “Every time you see a kid in a workplace with his parents, I guarantee you, you’ll see a happy kid. They’ve got a sense of worth.”



~ to be continued


~ by Russ Allison Loar
~ Photo by Mark Rightmire for The Orange County Register
© All Rights Reserved

Notable People I Have Met ~ Part Nine



Tom Hayden ~ anti-war activist



I met Tom Hayden during a press conference in the early 1980s attended by a large, outdoor crowd of students at Cal State Long Beach where I later earned a degree in journalism. I can’t remember if Hayden was already a state assemblyman, or running for the office at that time. He served in the Assembly from 1982 to 1992 and as a California state senator from 1992 to 2000.

Hayden was one of the Chicago Eight, later called the Chicago Seven after defendant Bobby Seale was tried separately. The anti-Vietnam War activists were indicted on federal charges of conspiracy and incitement due to their involvement in the violent protests at the notorious Chicago Democratic National Convention in 1968. Their conviction was later overturned. Hayden was also one of the founders of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a left-wing oriented group that was active in the 1960s. He was married to actress Jane Fonda from 1973 to 1990.

Fresh from my transition from musician to college student, I asked Hayden if he thought marijuana should be legalized. He was reluctant to answer the question and joked, “You’ve got to give me a minute. I’m too high to answer that question right now,” prompting laughter from the assembled students. At the end of his extensive joking, he said quietly, “It should be the same as alcohol.” I don't think he wanted to be known as a pro-legalization advocate during that time of his career.



Abbie Hoffman ~ anti-war activist


Abbie Hoffman was also one of the Chicago Eight. I interviewed and photographed Hoffman in 1987 at UC Irvine when I was a reporter at the Irvine World News. Though Hoffman was a respected anti-war activist, author and university lecturer, his speech at the open-air campus rally was comedic as well as political.

He railed against then President Ronald Reagan and the Iran-Contra scandal, and urged students to protest university research in Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, commonly known as the “Star Wars” missile defense initiative.

Diagnosed as bipolar, Hoffman committed suicide two years later in 1989. The New York Times reported that a coroner found the residue of 150 phenobarbital pills in his system, along with evidence of alcohol ingestion.

Though Hoffman did his best to encourage the college crowd that day to help create a new generation of student activism, I remember his speech best as a superb standup routine. He could have killed at any comedy club in the country. Thirty years later, I can’t remember the event well enough to quote his humorous remarks, but no doubt about it, inside this scruffy rabble-rouser was the heart of a funny, funny man.



~ to be continued

~ by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved

Monster Trucks and Sausages



S omeone gave me free tickets to the monster truck show at the county fair, entitling me to be among the privileged few to witness a huge, elevated truck smash into a motor home.

As I chewed on the tougher parts of my fat-laden giant sausage, I surveyed the enthusiastic monster truck audience, watched them cheer for the wheelie-popping trucks, and mused on just how fragile our participatory democracy truly is.




~ by Russ Allison Loar
~ Photograph by FlagWorld.com
© All Rights Reserved

My Afternoon With Alex



The charming and erudite host of Jeopardy!, Alex Trebek, is surprisingly sardonic off camera. The studio audience—about 100 split between members of the general public on the left side of the theater, friends and family of the contestants on the right—had plenty of opportunity to ask him questions during down times between segments, sampling his slightly cynical sense of humor.

I got in the first question, a technique I used as a reporter, knowing that even at a major press conference there is often a reluctance to ask the first question. So I prepared my question in advance, rehearsed it mentally and was ready to go when Trebek asked for questions from the audience.

I asked if he'd ever been a game show contestant; if he would ever be a contestant on Jeopardy! before he retires; and how did he think he'd do as a Jeopardy! contestant.

He said he'd been a contestant on a few game shows, but would not be a contestant on Jeopardy! because then someone else would have to host the show, and "he might be better than I am." How would he do as a Jeopardy! contestant? Trebek said he would probably do well against his "peers." Then, looking directly at me, he said, "I see by your white hair that you might be one of my peers. I would crush you!"

A middle-aged man in the mostly middle-aged audience asked, "How do you pronounce all those foreign words?" Trebek answered with overemphasized, drawn out speech: "W-i-t-h M-y M-o-u-t-h."

I also talked to crisp-toned announcer Johnny Gilbert, asking how many tapings per day the winners do. He said they tape five shows a day. For Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings to win seventy-four consecutive games, he had to win five games in a row, then get up the next morning and go win another five games. Whew indeed! The show tapes Tuesdays and Wednesdays, three weeks a month, nine months a year.

Gilbert introduced two of the three Clue Crew members who were at the taping—Sarah and Jimmy. When the pair stood up and waved to the audience, I saw that Jimmy was wearing a maroon hoodie with "HARVARD" emblazoned on the front in big letters. Yeah, OK. You're smart.

A Few Candid Moments

A fortyish woman asked Trebek what his favorite karaoke song was. He replied, "My favorite karaoke song?" then turned his head to the side and pretended to spit on the floor, saying: "I hate karaoke."

Another audience member asked him what he thought about rap music. As he began to criticize it, he seemed to pause and take a quick scan of the audience, then said he disliked most of it because of the bad language and negative references, adding that he thought it was a bad influence on youth. "Not all of it is bad, but most of it," he said, apparently not wishing to condemn the entire black youth culture.

Surprise! Trebek Doesn't Know Everything

When one of the contestants incorrectly answered "era" instead of "eon" in response to a science question requiring a three-letter word with two vowels, Trebek told the young man that "era" was not a scientific term. One of the fact checkers disagreed.

(Era can be generic, such as the era of horse and buggy, or scientific, such as the Paleozoic era.)

Trebek seemed to think "era" had only a generic meaning. But after the fact checker disagreed, he walked over to the front of the stage where a semicircle of fact checkers are located in a pit behind computer screens and telephones, and picked up one of their dictionaries. He seemed genuinely interested in making sure he had the correct information, although the staff photographer who took candid photos during the taping of the show moved quickly into position to take a few shots of Trebek studiously peering into the dictionary. He lingered just long enough to ensure a good publicity shot.

Trebek Is 73

When asked what books he's read, Trebek said he reads a lot of nonfiction, "political stuff," and also likes novelist "John . . ." and then couldn't think of the author's last name until an audience member called out: "Grisham." Then he mentioned finishing a book during a recent trip, but could not remember what it was. "It'll come to me," he said. It didn't.

So even the sharp-witted Trebek, adjudicator of all knowledge, cannot escape the symptoms of an aging mind. Or perhaps it was just overload, considering all the data that had passed through his brain by the last taping of the day. It was the fifth and last show during a day in which he'd already articulated 264 questions with but a very few misspeaks. Is this reassuring to those of us who worry about occasional memory loss? I don't know, but I'm gonna keep playing.



(Written in March, 2014)



~ by Russ Allison Loar
© All Rights Reserved