Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

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Book Review: Don't Make Me Pull Over

It wasn’t so long ago that if a family embarked on a vacation, driving was the only feasible way to do it.  I took my first flight (alone, no less) when I was thirteen years-old in 1981, and if memory serves, the ticket for me to fly to San Francisco and back cost around $350, a sum that made a visit to the West Coast impossible not only for my family – hence the solo venture – but for most families at that time.  Vacationing meant driving, which often meant cramming into an unreliable car without air-conditioning, DVD players, phones or hand-held electronic games, and arguing about who controlled the radio and who got to play the Hi-Q peg game next.  Sound like hell on Earth?  Well, it certainly had a few downsides, but traveling by car in the 1970s was actually a lot of fun, and in Richard Ratay’s Don’t Make Me Pull Over: An Informal History of the Family Road Trip, he takes the reader on a pleasant Sunday afternoon’s drive through our nation’s love affair with hitting the highway.  It’s a terrific read that offers equal parts nostalgia, history and hilarity.

I had expected Ratay’s book to read more like a memoir, and although we do get to know his family – often with comedic results – Don’t Make Me Pull Over is first and foremost a history book, and Ratay deftly introduces sundry topics in an entertaining way.  We learn about the U.S. Interstate, the birth of the garish Holidome, speed limits, the advent of the speed gun and the equalizing force of the Fuzzbuster, the use of TripTik booklets (remember those?), video games, car games, restaurants and the creation of drive-through windows, an achievement Ratay is certain his father would rank as one of the greatest advancements of the twentieth century (well above personal computers, but not quite as high as graphite-shafted golf clubs).

Despite the ample history that’s packed into this entertaining read, the star of the book has to be Ratay’s father, a no-nonsense kind of guy who wants to “make good time” whatever the cost, who bargains with hotel clerks over price, and who settles disputes in the backseat by detaining the offender with his right arm while maintaining control of the steering wheel with his left.  In one hilarious chapter, Ratay tells of his father’s insistence on driving the car for as long as possible before refueling (“No sense stopping sooner than we have to.  We’ll lose twenty minutes just getting off and on the highway.”).  You can guess where this leads, but the results aren’t any less slide-splitting.  Ratay’s portrayal of his father reminded me a lot of David Sedaris’s father in his terrific memoirs, both idiosyncratic but likeable guys who’d probably make great supporting characters in a 1970s sitcom.

Ratay also writes about the experience of traveling as a child, and he fondly recalls the freedom that riding in the backseat used to entail:

After finishing my meal, I’d grab a pillow and retire belowdecks to the floorboard, where I stretched out for a nap on the warm and comfy shag carpet, positioning my belly just so over the hump of the transmission housing.

This stirs my own memory so well that I can almost feel the rumble of the wheels vibrating against my chest.

Because the book is a look back, it naturally leads to a final chapter that accounts for what we’ve lost along the way, and Ratay’s argument isn’t without merit.  He writes about his family’s first trip taken via air in 1981 (the year of my first flight), and laments that they’d taken a trip but hadn’t made a journey.  “The plain fact was that other than purchasing our plane tickets, we’d made no real effort to reach our objective…There’d been no hardships, no squabbles, no hours of tedium, not even a worry that we’d missed a turn…Our flight had allowed us to soar over all the things that once made a family vacation…a family vacation.”  There’s something to this, I think, and add to that technological advances and our desire to be entertained, even those of us who still take road trips may not experience them together as much as individually, each family member glued to his or her own device.

Don’t Make Me Pull Over is a great read by a very capable author.  I’ll be curious to see what Ratay comes up with next.

The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock

David Weigel’s book The Show That Never Ends: The Rise and Fall of Prog Rock traces the arc of a semi-vague movement in rock history, devoting a good deal of space to the usual suspects of Yes, Genesis, Rush, Emerson Lake and Palmer, King Crimson, etc., while highlighting various bands who may have fallen under the radar for some listeners (me, for instance). If nothing else, the book provides a jumping off point to discover new music, but unless you’ve already submerged wholeheartedly into the waters of 20-minute long epics, this book will not wade you in gradually via the shallow end and let you get used to the temperature. You’re getting thrown into the deep end and will likely drown.

Weigel doesn’t hand-hold, so that when he delves into the history of chaps named Daevid Allen and Robert Wyatt – two people I had never heard of – he doesn’t give the reader the benefit of context. In the hands of a better writer, I would have expected a brief “…who would later form Soft Machine…” No such luck. Mercifully, a few pages later he applies this technique for Michael Giles, as “…the future drummer of King Crimson.”

But until the Weigel anchors the reader firmly in the 1970s and the bands that gained traction, the book is a bit of a mess, devoting a page to one band, then a page to another, so that it’s hard to find one’s bearings. The promising prologue is the only thing that kept me turning the page at first, but once we reached 1970, I was all in, finishing the book in just over a day (which, for me, is quite an accomplishment).

Once again, I had my handy streaming service next to me throughout the reading of this book, playing hours of music to see if any music struck a chord. Recognizing that I didn’t give compositions the same chance I would have had I shelled out $7.99 for an LP in 1980, here are some of my hasty conclusions:

1)     I hadn’t considered Procol Harum a prog rock band, and really, I hadn’t considered them at all. But after streaming through half an album, I’ve decided that I need to investigate them more fully (I'm listening to them as I write this blog). Aside from their breakout hit, “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” I have no clue, but I like what I’ve heard thus far.

2)     The funnest fact I learned was that the vocal/organ line of Yes’s 20-minute epic “Ritual” was sampled for a song by De La Soul called “The Grind Date.” Now THAT was something Jon Anderson couldn’t have foreseen back in 1973 as critics were panning the double album, Tales from Topographic Oceans (one of Yes’s best).

3)     The prog rock bands that hit the big time were likely the best, so give a hand to the masses for taste. I listened for a while to Soft Machine, Van der Graaf Generator, Gong, etc., and more modern bands like Porcupine Tree and Dream Theater, and none of them grabbed me.

4)     Given the inclusion of Gong, I was surprised that 10cc wasn’t given a brief shout-out, as the quirky nature of the music is similar. Styx too is mentioned only in passing on page 214, a little surprising given the content of their first several albums.

5)     Two additional bands that I’d like to investigate more are Hatfield and the North, and Gentle Giant. My ears perked up for both and I’ll need to add them to the list along with Procol Harum.

6)     A great deal of space is devoted to Robert Fripp, from his King Crimson output to his work with Brian Eno, David Bowie, Peter Gabriel and Daryl Hall, and I found both the man and his music to be insufferable. I’m not a fan of Bowie’s Heroes and Gabriel’s second album, and last night I listened to the Daryl Hall release Sacred Songs – terrible. And then I found a King Crimson concert recorded just last June from the Chicago Theater – a concert I actually considered going to until I learned that neither Bill Bruford nor Adrian Belew would be on stage – and I’m so glad I saved my cash. Aside from the song “Three of a Perfect Pair,” I guess I’m simply not a Fripp fan.

7)     As a vinyl purchaser, I’ve occasionally had a Jethro Tull album in hand before placing it back in the record bin (they tend to be pricey). After listening to Thick as a Brick in its entirety, I think I’m going to pass on this band. Aside from a few songs, they aren't my cup of tea. However, I have to give Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull a bit of a shout-out, as his 1980 description of why prog rock went out of favor is spot on:

Ten years ago, there was a great deal more flexibility and freedom both in radio programming and in terms of the record company policy, as to what they would take a chance on.

I agree, but the rise of the Internet and home recording studios of course changes all of that. As connoisseurs we can listen to anything we want whenever we want, and I imagine that aside from the terrible metrics that Pandora uses to crap out the same old shit time and time again, there has got to be access to interesting, innovative music at everyone’s fingertips. The trick is finding it. If I put in a Yes song in Pandora and press play, I’ll get the usual Genesis, Kansas, Styx and Rush – nothing that exposes me to interesting bands I’ve never heard of, including many of the bands explored in Weigel’s book. But I suspect if I were 20 years-old and cared more, I would find the music I was longing for.

For the time being, I’m going to go backward and explore some of the bands I missed the first time around. And then I’m going to put on Close to the Edge. Because really, it doesn’t get any better than that.

Springsteen's Autobiography

At various points while reading Bruce Springsteen’s recently published autobiography, Born to Run, I wanted to tell The Boss to relax. It’s only rock and roll.

Not to Springsteen. Rock and roll isn’t just his career – it’s his passion, his religion and path to salvation and redemption. When it comes to his music, he analyzes, he ruminates, he wrestles with, he composes and discards and rewrites and exerts energy that would exhaust a normal human being. Springsteen’s commitment to his music is inexhaustible, his drive indefatigable, his work ethic bordering on the obsessive, and he fully admits in his 500+ page book that his musical pursuits kept him from living a life for much of his first four decades. For Springsteen, his blessing is also a curse.

Not so for his fans, who now get to enjoy a book that benefits from the same commitment Springsteen applies to his music. There are two things about this book that make it stand out from among so many other musician biographies: first, the guy can write. No ghost writer required for this biopic. Springsteen effectively changes tenses, alternates between story and insight, offers a fairly chronological account of his life while still assembling topical chapters and is just self-deprecating enough to keep the reader rooting for him. (e.g., “I know I’m good but I’m also a poser. That’s artistic balance!”)

Second, Springsteen is an extremely curious person, eager to analyze his past, his surroundings, his parents, his bandmates, his storytelling, what music means to our society, etc., and as such opens up much more than many other musicians are willing to while never falling into the tell-all abyss. He doesn’t shy away from confrontations and weaknesses, but he’s also careful not to say too much. His well-known grievances with manager Mike Appel are mentioned but not dwelled upon, his at-times difficult relationship with Steve Van Zandt and Danny Federici are addressed without going into detail, and his first marriage’s demise is handled deftly and respectably.

Unlike, say, Keith Richard’s entertaining but shallow Life, or Elvis Costello’s coy, self-indulgent and muddled Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, Born to Run is both an exercise in good writing and in reflection. Consider the following description of how a snowstorm can make you feel. Where others might have simply said, “I love a good snow,” Springsteen writes:

No work, no school, the world shutting its big mouth for a while; the dirtiest streets covered over in virgin whites, like all the missteps you’ve taken have been erased by nature.  You can’t run; you can only sit.  You open your door on a trackless world, your old path, your history, momentarily covered over by a landscape of forgiveness, a place where something new might happen.  It’s an illusion but it can stimulate the regenerative parts of your spirit to make good on God and nature’s suggestion.

Nicely done. Yes, there are times when Springsteen’s ruminations get a tad tiresome, but I’ll take a book with too much reflection than too little any day. And while much of his book is about his troubled relationship with his father and Bruce’s own path to overcome some of the traits he inherited (including a forthright revelation about his own mental illness), the book is a fairly effective balance between Springsteen’s music and his personal life. I would have preferred a few more anecdotes about recording and performing. I imagine he could devote an entire book to such an endeavor, and perhaps one day he will, but as a musician I’m often confounded with how little musicians write about…well, MUSIC. 

Oddly absent are any mention of Springsteen’s 1991 releases, Human Touch and Lucky Town.  Every other album is discussed in some detail, but for reasons unknown, he doesn’t even mention the album titles or the process of composing or recording for them. He does reveal how disappointed he was that 2011’s Wrecking Ball album didn’t reach the audience he’d hoped for, and concludes that “In the States, the power of rock music as a vehicle for [political] ideas had diminished.” That may be true, but probably more important was the fact that Wrecking Ball, as I’ve written before, was a bore. Bruce’s writing simply hasn’t progressed that way it has for, say, Paul Simon, Jackson Browne or Joe Jackson.

One high point of the book is a short chapter devoted to his performance at the 2009 Super Bowl, an event that makes even Springsteen nervous. “It’s not the usual preshow jitters or ‘butterflies’ I’ve had before. I’m talking about ‘five minutes to beach landing,’ Right Stuff, ‘Lord, don’t let me screw the pooch in front of a hundred million people’ kind of semiterror.” This chapter more than any other helps us see performing through Bruce’s eyes.

He writes, “It was a high point, a marker of some sort, and went up with the biggest shows of our work life. The NFL threw us an anniversary party the likes of which we’d never have thrown for ourselves.” The show was only two weeks after President Obama’s first inaugural address. The feelings of excitement, of rebirth and celebration were in the air. It’s hard to imagine this type of feeling emanating from any performer these days. Lady Gaga did a fine job last night at Super Bowl LI, but times look bleak, our capacity for celebration diminished.

In, 2009, Springsteen ended his Super Bowl performance with "Glory Days.”

Glory days, indeed.

A Loss of Electricity

Two years ago my boiler stopped working just as the outside temperature plummeted to the single digits, leaving my family scrambling for a solution as our thermostat displayed 55 degrees and falling.  Luckily a knowledgeable neighbor provided a quick fix until I could get my HVAC guy in, and all ended well, but the episode left me aware of just how unprepared I am to withstand even the shortest power outage, especially in the winter months. 

Although numerous communities in the U.S. have suffered severe outages as a result of natural disasters, as a nation – with the exception of the short-lived Northeast blackout of 2003 that affected over 55 million people – the U.S. has managed to avoid the widespread calamity that Ted Koppel illustrates in his new book, Light’s Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath.

Poke around on-line about the electric grid and you’ll soon find commentary from the most extreme elements of our society (i.e., complete wack jobs).  Fortunately, veteran journalist Ted Koppel’s voice lends a degree of sanity to the polarizing issue.  Will his voice make any difference?  Time will tell, though I think he’s done a great service to highlight to the general public just how vulnerable our electrical grid is to terrorism – most likely of the cyber variety.  We’re talking potentially a hundred million people without power for weeks or months, a crippling of the U.S. economy and the U.S. military, and people’s worst instincts taking hold through looting and violence.  (You know, the kind of scenarios we pay millions to see as long as they’re on the big screen and not happening in our own backyards.)

Koppel provides expert testimony from both in and out of the electric industry and the government agencies who are supposedly equipped to either handle a major crisis (FEMA) or prevent a crisis in the first place (DHS).  (A word of caution: neither has a plan in place to respond to a major cyberattack.)  When Koppel asks General Lloyd Austin of U.S. Central Command if there is a danger of a cyberattack taking out a major section of the U.S. electric grid, he answers, “It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when someone will try that.”

The words of a paranoid?  We would do well to recall the domestic terrorist attack on a California substation in April of 2013 that knocked out ten transformers.  Many think that this event was a dry run to something bigger, but with a cyberattack one doesn’t need AK-47s to inflict damage to the electrical grid – it can all be down remotely.  As Koppel reports, there are nation states to be concerned about like China and Russia, but they have a limited desire to inflict damage on a country that could inflict as much damage in return.  Of more concern is a country like North Korea who’s already demonstrated a desire to inflict damage to the U.S., who’s already hacked Sony, and who has absolutely nothing to lose.  Of course, a cyberattack wouldn't need to be state-sponsored; terrorist organizations also pose a significant threat.

Light’s Out isn’t all doom and gloom (though it is, mostly).  Koppel interviews a number of “preppers” – people who prepare for the worst through a variety of measures, including the storing of food, water, medicine, fuel and the like – who would likely be able to withstand an electrical outage for months.  Yes, some of them are wack jobs, but many are just regular people who want to have a plan in place in case of a long-term loss of power.  Even better prepared are the Mormons who – in addition to instructing personal actions – have a structural system in place that would help provide safety for its members in the event of a national disaster.

Where does that leave the rest of us?  Koppel doesn’t delve into details, which is rather a shame, but there are countless resources on-line and in print that can help the average Joe become a little more prepared than he is currently.  We're not talking silly duck and cover drills in the event of a nuclear explosion; we're talking sensible steps involving freeze-dried food, water storage and the like.  If enough Americans do this, then some of the panic that might ensue after a significant loss of power can be avoided while responders attend to those who are most in need. 

I’m going to devote a little time and a little money in 2016 to be a little more personally prepared, and I hope you consider doing so.  Getting our politicians to prepare will be a whole other endeavor.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved