Walter Trout and BB King (revised)

I had to go back and correct this.   It took me a couple of days to deal the BB King show.  It was just such a different experience that it really took the time to process.

BB King is a deep experience.  It had much more impact than I’d expected, but in a different way.   I didn’t experience BB King as a guitar player, with my analytical mind trying to figure out what he was playing.   I wasn’t trying to figure out how he gets his sound or any of that.

I had to just let go of all that and sit back and enjoy what he was doing.

The thing with BB, is that he connects with his audience.  It’s just amazing to watch.  The best way to describe it is like being in a church.  That has a really good choir.   I know that’s a cliche, but it really fits here.   You leave feeling like you’ve all shared some wonderful collective experience, and you have.


BB King tonight!

I’m going to see Walter Trout and BB King tonight at the Belly up in Solana Beach.

This will be the first time I’ve seen him.  This is procrastination on an epic scale no matter how one looks at it.  I’ve always managed to have something else to do when he’s came around.  Well, better late than never.

Actually, I’m almost giddy.   The last time I was like this was when I went to see Albert King.  Just hearing him play the first note was a revelation, just as it was with Jimi Hendrix.  Watching someone play music that has had a profound impact on my life is always an event for me.  I don’t know how anyone can play electric guitar and not feel like you owe some debt to Mr. King.

So, this is in some sense a pilgrimage.   But the only expectation I have is to sit there and listen.


Girl’s Bike and Chick Car

Seems I have a knack for finding modes of transport that for some folks are usually associated with the female gender.   My first sportscar was a “Fairlady”, so I suppose I shouldn’t be shocked.  The little Harley you see above, (ironically in front of the Miata that replaced it) is a 2003 Sportster 883.

I bought it new because I’d always wanted a Sportster.  One of my parent’s neighbors  owned one when I was in kindergarten, a blue 1957 model.  At the time, it was rumored to be the “fastest thing in town”, which it might have actually been.   It was loud, always covered with a light mixture of oil and grime, and my parents hated it.   From the eyes of a five year old that was enough to make it an intense object of attention.

The Harley was an odd choice in may ways: it was the last in a succession of bikes that heretofore had been faster than the last one: Honda FT500, BMW R80, Honda Nighthawk 700S, and Honda VFR.

The Sportster was just a tick faster than the little single cylinder Honda, and had a design that had only been updated once since 1957.   What had been a fire breathing monster for “experts only” in 1957 was now reduced to being “My First Harley” for newby “Harletts”.  The Sporty was now one of the slowest motorcycles you could buy.

Now, I could have bought the 1200 CC version, that would have been a little faster, but I really wanted the classic 883 displacement and since the Sportster still had a soldly mounted motor my experience with the larger motor was mainly one of increased vibration and tingly hands on every ride.  (I worked selling Harleys, Hondas, and Yamahas in the mid 90’s in Bend, Oregon)

I did endeavor to give it a little more performance, and installed a free flowing intake and re-jetted the carb so the bike wasn’t running so lean.  The exhaust was a little more of a problem as I wanted one that flowed a little more freely, but wouldn’t make the bike quite so loud.   I found some genuine Harley-Davidson ones (which means they are made in the same factory in China as the original ones) called “torque mufflers”, that were barely louder than the stock ones, but sounded WAY better.   Kind of like a stock Sportster in 1970.

The bike was a blast to ride, with the flattest torque curve in all of motorcycling.   I lacked that “hyper-drive” sensation that the typical crotch rocket has, but I had discovered that was something that had lost some of it’s thrill for me with time.  The bike would still accelerate harder than most cars, at least up to 40 or 50 mph.  About as fast as your typical 60’s muscle car.  In any case, the bike weighed about 500 pounds, which is about my limit .  Anything much heavier than that gives me the “monkey riding on an elephant” sensation, and I might just as well be in a car.

My typical ride would be 50 to 60 miles, and I would head straight for winding mountain roads.  At the time, I lived in El Cajon, and could be out of the urban environment in less than 5 minutes.   The little Harley would lean over as far as I was willing to take it, and I only touched the foot-pegs to the ground a couple times in the 6 years that I owned it.  It perfectly suited my riding style, which was brisk, but not at racing speeds, just fast enough to be fun.   Just riding it was fun, very similar to the feeling I got as a kid, riding my little Honda. You didn’t have to go fast to have fun, which I think is the major appeal to most Harley riders.    90 MPH on the VFR was boring.  90 on the little Hog was “racing with the wind”, to steal a line from Mars Bonfire.

It was not a great device to use for transportation on freeways.  The ancient suspension didn’t have much travel and the ride over concrete freeways would get punishing fairly quickly along with the vibration from the motor.  Going faster than about 75 on the unfaired Sportster was like being strapped to a paint shaker in a hurricane.

I once rode the bike at night from Van Nuys to El Cajon and that was by far the longest ride I ever took on the bike.  By the time I got home, I was beat up, bruised, cold, nearly exhausted with feet and hands numb from the vibration.   I’d ridden my BMW 500 miles, and got off as refreshed as if I’d driven a car.  Riding 120 miles on the Sportster was like operating a jackhammer for a couple of hours.  The bike as a toy with a very specific purpose.

So why did I sell it?  The short answer would be: “I got married”.  But that wouldn’t be totally correct.  Heather and I now live in San Diego.  If I stayed off the freeway,  It took me over 30 minutes to get to any road that was fun to ride on.   I just wasn’t riding the bike enough to justify owning it.  Heather liked to ride on the back, but the Sportster is not comfortable for two people for long, an hour is about the limit for most female derrieres.

Unless you ride regularly, it’s hard to keep up your motorcycling skills: they need to be habits.  I noticed I would be a little rusty every time I took the bike out: making little mistakes like misjudging cornering speeds, or maybe running a little wide in corners.   I’d spent a decade in the 80’s riding the freeways of Los Angeles and I can recall may close calls where I managed to save my ass by being alert, costantly monitoring the movements of cars around me.   Several times I’d managed to avoid cars that turned left in front of me by being aware that they might actually not see me, and riding in traffic with my right hand already in position on the brake lever.   It was time to sell.

History of 0-60

Ever wonder where the 0-60 automotive test came from?   The person who gets the credit for making it a standard was Tom McCahill, road test editor of Mechanix Illustrated (Written so Even You can Understand it), who some say invented the modern road test in 1946 by publishing a test of his own car.  You can read more about him here:

It was adopted as a feature of all the automotive magazines and became an accepted standard (along with the ¼ mile) for measuring automotive performance.

Going back to the 46 Ford, McCahill found that it would take about 23 seconds to get to 60 from a dead stop, and by 1949 a new V8 Ford would do it in just a tick under 16.    The 1955 Chevy, which was a real revolution for low priced cars would  do 0-60 in under 10 seconds with the 180 HP “Power Pack” small block.

By 1960 fast sedans like the Chrysler 300 could turn times in the mid 8 second area, with Corvettes running in the mid 7 second range.   1962 saw the Chevy Impala SS with the famed “409” turn sub 7 second times, although the more typical Impala with a small block would take closer to ten.

VW vans of the era would take 30 seconds to get to 60, (ones from the 50’s could take over 40!  The ones made after 1971 would do it in 22 seconds.)

By 1966, a GTO was just under 7 seconds  to 60, which was faster than the fastest road going Ferrari and could hold that lead up to about 100 mph.

They were both bog slow compared to the 427 Cobra, which could do the deed in 4.2 seconds!  It would be years before other road going vehicles matched this feat. The fastest 427 Corvette of the era took about a half second longer to hit 60, while the typical 327 powered one was in the middle of the 6 second range.

The first Porsche 911, by comparison, took just under 9 seconds to hit 60, whereas an MGB might do it in around 12 to 13 seconds.  By 1970 a 240Z would do 0-60 in the mid 8 second range, which made it really fast compared to something like a TR-6: which would take nearly 11 seconds, or the TR Spitfire at 15 seconds to do the same.

Once unleaded gas and lower emissions friendly compression ratios came into play in the early 70’s, cars started making a lot less power and slowed considerably.  A 1974 Z-28 Camaro took a little over 8 seconds to hit 60 and the Standard v8 Camaro took around 10 seconds.

The standard full size V8 sedan or station wagon from the early 70’s to the mid 80s would take around 12 to 13 seconds to reach 60 and it wasn’t until the late 80’s when IROC z-28’s and Mustang 5.0’s started getting back down to mid 6 second times.   Things steadily improved through the 90’s and early parts of this century to where most cars now are all under 9 seconds.  Mini vans post times in the mid 6 second ranges.  Compact cars usually do it in under 10.   A Chevy Suburban will do under 8 seconds.  A Prius, which is considered a rather slow car, takes 10.7 seconds.  The fastest Camaros and Mustangs  are now about as fast as the old Cobras were, and there are lots of cars that will do 0-60 in under 4 seconds.

So what does that all mean?  You need to take this with a grain of salt.  Modern tires have a lot more grip, so all the performance cars get off the line a lot quicker, and that gives them about a half to one second advantage.   The modern cars that are fast all get about twice the highway mileage of their counterparts in the 60’s and 70’s, idle smoothly and are quite civilized when you don’t have your foot on the long pedal.

The other thing is that nobody spends all their time at wide open full throttle. The big high torque V8’s in those old station wagons and sedans would allow them to cruise smoothly and quietly all day on the interstate at 80 mph.

Although a current mini van might run away from a 1971 240 Z or a 62 409 Impala at a stop light if the driver were to put his foot to the floor,  but the driver of the vintage car would be having a lot more fun doing it. (as long as he could keep his ego out of it)

And those muscle cars from the 60’s?   Well, the newest crop of performance cars will outrun most any of them, easily.    But, subjectively, those old muscle cars have it all over the new ones in terms of drama.   They may be going slower, but the passengers and driver won’t feel like they are.   A run through the gears in say, a 66 GTO, is an event, with a ferocious sound track, the car hopping sideways with each gear change.  Letting out the clutch sounds like an explosion under the car as the front end of the car visibly rises.  Not quite the same experience in a new Mustang: you may get shoved back in the seat, and you still have the V8 sound track, but it’s more muted.   The car idles as smoothly as your mom’s station wagon (the GTO has a menacing rumble, even at idle) did back in the day, there’s no sense of a thoroughbred begging to be unleashed, the whole experience is way more refined, and well, civilized.

Not sure if that’s an improvement.


Legalize Drugs? Is Ron Paul Nuts?

I have to admit I’m somewhat fascinated by some of the libertarian’s ideas.   I’m not sure I agree with all of them, and I do have questions as just how some of their ideas would be implemented.  But it’s tough to fault the philosophy’s constant touchstone of “freedom”.

Recently, I was reading an interview with Newt Gingrich where he spouted the conventional wisdom about “getting tough” with drugs.   This was contrasted against Ron Paul’s ideas that the drug war was a “failure” and that legalization of drugs might be a good idea.   Many people find this a radical idea.  The reality is that prohibition of drugs is a relatively new idea, almost an experiment.

Shortly after the turn of the last century, someone hatched the idea that behavior should be controlled by making certain actions against the law. Criminal law evolved as a means of keeping people from injuring, killing other people or taking their property. All crimes generally had both perpetrators and victims.

There were a few crimes known as “crimes against the crown” where the government, in the person of the monarch, was the “victim”. (Sedition, Treason) Since most (if not all) governments had established religions, there were also religious laws on the books that criminalized activities such as adultery and blasphemy.

We started taking the concept of “sin” and codifying it into criminal statutes. If someone was doing something you didn’t like such as drinking, gambling, drugging, prostitution, or homosexuality, you’d just make it illegal.  None of these featured what you might call a clear cut victim, in the classic sense.

Laws of this type have been disasters, by and large, (prohibition being the best example). They don’t really stop the behaviors they are intended to stop, and there’s very little evidence that have any significant effects at all, save for increasing the likelihood of corrupt police forces, creating black markets and therefore huge untaxed profits for drug dealers. To say nothing of drastically increasing the pressures on our already overloaded and ineffective prison system.  But somehow they’ve achieved a sort of legitimacy, and for some reason there is a common-sense belief that if something is bad, it should be a crime to do it.

From my point of view, I should have the right to put any substance into my body.   If these substances cause me to harm someone else, there are laws to take care of that, and I think that if the police aren’t busy busting pot dispensaries, they’re more likely to apprehend me or stop me from doing so.

The United States will spend over $50,000,000,000 on the Drug War in 2011 alone.   I submit that this money could be better spent in a thousand places.  Mr. Gingrich, like most people who demagogue the drug issue is that we need to have drug laws to “send a message” to our youth that drug use is bad.   Obesity is probably more of an actual threat to today’s youth than drugs.  Do we need to outlaw Godfather’s pizza?

Datsun 1500 Sports AKA: Fairlady

I’ve owned five two-seaters so far, and two of them are Japanese roadsters.    The first one was a  Datsun 1500 Sports, which in most markets was called the Fairlady, a name not deemed sufficiently macho for the US market.   It later evolved into first the 1600, and then into the 2000.   These cars were the precursors to the 240 z, which in Japan was called the Fairlady Z.

The first time I ever drove anything that could be called a “sports car” I was on a road trip to San Francisco in the Winter of 1969 with my friend Jim Oiler, who owned a 65 Fairlady.   I had a chance to drive his car, and instantly was hooked. I bought the very same car from him about 6 months later, when he decided to sell it to get a 1600, which had 11 more horsepower, 14 inch wheels, and disc brakes. 

Road tests of the era claimed the Datsun 1500 took 15 seconds to reach 60 mph, which means it was way slower than any modern economy car.    It never felt sluggish to me , though and the crude but stiff suspension controlled body motions well enough that it was fun to drive in a brisk manner on winding roads.   I might have been able to corner as fast in my parents four door Dodge (if I could stand the sailboat-like lean angles and the under-steer generated howling of the front tires) but it wouldn’t have actually been fun, where in the Datsun it was an addictive activity.

The car was really fun to slide around and the skinny 13 inch bias ply tires certainly helped the situation.   Even the 85 horsepower out of the little car’s four-banger were enough to overcome the lack of grip in the lower two gears if you grabbed the car by the scruff of it’s neck and tossed the car into the corner.   The skinny tires gentle breakaway made it easy to catch the slide as the tire grip gave way with just a flick of the steering wheel; in the rain you could hang the rear end out and generate lurid slides.  Putting radial tires on it would defeat the whole purpose of the car.

The fact that the top came off was a major bonus, not only for the wind in the hair experience and the sense of speed, but it allowed you to hear the car’s exhaust.  Whoever had owned it before Jim had fitted it with a Cherry Bomb muffler, and the car sounded wonderful. (never thought I’d hear “Cherry Bomb” and “sounded wonderful” in the same sentence)

I know this brings up thoughts of today’s “rice rockets” with loud flatulent exhausts, but the small displacement motor sounded rather musical; a run through the gears provided a great soundtrack with a little “ahhh” sound on overrun at each gear change, and the car wasn’t really very loud at all. 

It’s was a great first sports car, not enough power to get you in trouble and benign handling if you did manage to push it a little over the limit.  30 mpg, (When gas was under 30 cents a gallon) easy to work on; cheap to fix, if it did break.  I kept it for two years and then sold it to get a 289-4-speed 65 Mustang.

The other thing, it was a chick magnet.    “Oh, that’s a cute little car!” may not feed your male ego much, but it looked like it might be fun to ride in to a lot of women who wouldn’t have been too keen to ride in some loud beast of a vehicle that idled at 2,000 RPM and shook like a wet dog when you punched the throttle.

There’s a video below that gives a pretty good sense of what it was like to ride in one.


I still have the roadster bug, I now have a BMW Z3 roadster, which can’t help but remind me of the little Datsun

It’s a little bit faster, but only 3 inches longer (about 10 inches wider, though) and still brings our the the same reaction in me: driving is fun!



1961 Honda C110

This is an example of the first vehicle I ever owned.   It was called a Honda 50 Sport in the US and a Super Cub in many markets.  The “sport’ funtion is denoted by not only the proper tank betweeen the riders legs, but a manual clutch and a high mounted exhaust pipe.  It is a testimony to Soichiro Honda’s engineering skills that the clutch and gearbox were able to survive many a teenager’s fist ham-fisted (and ham-footed) attempts to deal with a manual transmission, as I think most of my friends must have learned how to ride on this little bike.

I learned the rudiments of mechanics by tinkering with the carburator, adjusting the chain,  changing the spark plug, and actually performing my first ever performance modification by removing the diffuser from the rakishly upswept muffler.   (It makes more noise, it MUST be faster, right?)

Most of the time, I used the C110 is a trail bike.   Every once in a while I’d get up the nerve to take it for a ride on the country roads just outside of town.   I’m not sure the sense of freedom this gave me has ever been more intense.  Some of it had to do with the “outlaw” nature of driving before legally able to, but most of it was having wheels and the ability to decide where you’re going: even if you have “No Particular Place to Go.”


Royal Street Bachelors

I spent the summer of 1969 with my cousin Bonnie and her husband Al in Villa Park California.  I look back on it now as a formative period in my life: it’s easier to find who you are when you don’t have to conform to what those around you expect from you.   Especially when you’re from a small town where that “who” fossilized around whoever you were at around 13.

One of the things that stand out in my memory was an afternoon and evening that I spent in Disneyland.  Among the highlights, (which included seeing the 1910 Fruitgum Company and the pre Donny-and-Marie Osmond Brothers) I’ve always remembered the guy who played a 6 string banjo (the first I’d ever seen) with a “Dixieland Trio” in “New Orleans Square”.

I probably spent the better part of an hour watching him play.   He is easily the smoothest guitar player I’ve ever seen.  (I know it was a banjo, but it was tuned like a guitar and had six strings.)  He played with little effort:  the most complex passages with an otherworldly fluidity.    There was never any hint of “Hey, Kid, watch this!” or any other kind of show off displays of technique.  Out came flurries of chords I didn’t recognize, unfathomable arpeggios and all sorts of jaw-dropping maneuvers I’d never seen before.   I never saw him play even one “clam”.  All this delivered with a calm demeanor that made Jerry Garcia look like a nervous twitch.    I kept saying to myself:  “This can’t be happening, he’s in an act at Disneyland.”   It would have to be among the top five displays of total instrumental mastery I’ve ever seen.

For 42 years, I’ve often pondered the meaning of all this.  Every time the discussion of guitar technique comes up, I think of this guy.  And usually the association with the thought “here he is, just a street performer at Disneyland”.  At one point, I also purchased a six string banjo, which I kept for about 3 days. I can’t play with my hand hovering above the surface of the instrument and the minute you rest it on the top of a banjo, all the sound stops, replaced with a muffled, atonal “thack” sound.  These instruments are a lot harder to play than they look.  It also visibly irritated and frightened the hell out of my cats to a degree previously reserved for the vacuum cleaner.

Then, in the middle of writing an E-mail to my friend Gerry, (About guess what?  Guitar technique.)   I thought to Google “six string banjo player Disneyland” and promptly did so.  A mystery no more, the man had a name, Harold Grant, and the trio was “Royal Street Bachelors” and along with Harold, they featured Jack McVea on clarinet and Herb Gordy on upright bass.

They were all LA  jazz and R & B players with many sessions with famous musicians to their credit.   McVea played sax on T-bone Walker’s “They call it stormy Monday”, and he also was the leader of Jack McVea’s All Stars, who had a hit in 1947 with “Open the door, Richard

They were effectively the house band for Black & White Records, an LA R & B and jazz record label. McVea played with Lionel Hampton’s orchestra in the 40’s.  He also played, along with Les Paul, Nat King Cole, and Illinois Jacquet at the first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert..  You’ll notice Jack is the second guy listed.

Herb Gordy played upright bass, most notably with with Red Prysock and Earl Bostic    He was also Barry Gordy’s cousin.

Harold himself played guitar on recordings by Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Jimmy Witherspoon, and Percy Mayfield.

I find this to be surreal: these were all players of considerable stature, practically jazz nobility and they spent 25 years playing music in Disneyland.   People are walking by, going about their business on the way to Tomorrowland, and for most they were little more than a diversion.

I hope they knew there were those who stopped and really listened.   I know from playing on stage when some guitar geek is watching me play, I’ve had kids at SDSU come up and ask about the Chuck Berry licks or why I play cheap guitars, etc.   So I know Harold knew I was watching him, and he couldn’t miss the look of amazement I must have been sporting.

I’m just glad I finally found out who he was.

God in a mouse?

Today, my cat came back out of the brush with a fat little screaming mouse in his mouth. He dropped it on the patio, obviously waiting for me to eat it.  If I can catch the mouse after he drops it, I usually assume it’s not going to survive, has terrible internal injuries and flush it down the toilet.   This does trouble me some, but I do get over it.  This particular critter was sort of odd in that it wasn’t easy to catch, but wouldn’t leave the patio area, leaving two cats on the other side of the screen door, just itching to get at it.

I went in and out a number of times, and tried to chase the mouse up the hill into the brush, but NO, he has to run back to the patio.  He’s obviously injured, but I can’t quite get a hold of his tail.   I decide to kill him and find a large rock.   I’m struck by the effort and time it takes to kill him and impressed with and saddened by his struggle to stay alive.  I’m troubled by how badly this has ended. I have a few dark moments as I try to recompose myself while buttering my toast.

Mice are a problem here, they get inside our garage and build nests in our stuff, so I think letting the cats hunt and kill them is probably a good thing, sort of a better alternative that rat poison or traps.

But this brings the whole man as “master of the earth” thing down to a personal level.   By killing the mouse, I’ve killed a little portion, however small, of myself.

And that’s what all of this eventually boils down to.  An economic system is, at it’s base, a method of allocation of resources.  They all assume part of the planet can be claimed by someone as theirs.  All economic systems become unstable when one person or group claims such a large slice of the pie that others can clearly see they are getting the short end of the stick.  We attempt to hold some of this in check by religion or some other abstraction that somehow justifies letting the masses suffer or die young in the name of some lofty ideal.

We slough off our own genocidal history with little sense of shame in the name of taking over a continent that wasn’t being properly exploited.

Most of those who mock environmental concerns are too smart to actually believe their cockeyed theories.  Much of the fight against evolution is centered around the thought that man isn’t just a part of nature and subject to the same rules as cockroaches.    Even those who actually believe in evolution often falsely assume that evolution is a process that ultimately results in man as a crown of creation.

The fact that our own contrived systems are breaking down is a warning that none of them take into account that the planet is the only one we have.  40 years ago I thought that the concept of Spaceship Earth would be widely accepted and naively assumed we were headed for the age of Aquarius.

Maybe the key lies in visualizing ourselves as verbs rather than nouns.   Or realizing that god was in that little mouse.


A Guitar Story

I’ve played the guitar since the summer after I turned 12 (1964, to put it in context; the year of the Beatles).  I started playing my step brother’s acoustic and tried to play along with songs by the Ventures, Dick Dale and The Fabulous Wailers (A Seattle band, not Bob Marley’s group).   I was actually pretty good at this because the muscle memory from playing the violin for three years carried over to the guitar fairly easily.  When my step brother moved out of the house, my parents bought me my first electric: a single pickup Kay hollow body archtop ($69.95) $30 of which came from the trade in from my violin.

The guitar was an attempt by my mom and my new step-dad to focus my attentions in some positive direction, as I wasn’t (for various reasons outside the scope of this column) coping well with life in general, and haging out with a bad crowd.   (I was arrested for vandalism: writing vulgarities on seats in the local movie theater with a felt pen.)  The Kay wasn’t really what I wanted in a guitar, but my parents told me that if I continued to have interest in the guitar, showed progress in my ability to play it, managed to avoid another arrest and  stayed out of trouble in school, they would match how ever much money I managed to save over the course of the next year and buy me a nice guitar.  I think this ploy managed to succeed beyond their expectations.

Over the course of the next year I managed to save $150 dollars from various sources: picking beans, my allowance, doing extra chores around the house,  bottle deposits and stealing change from my mom’s purse.     I ended up buying a used 1963 Custom Telecaster (this was the fall of 1965) for the sum of $175, (less $25 trade in for the Kay).   My parents kept up their part of the bargain, perhaps relieved they didn’t have to match $150.   I can’t remember exactly why I settled on the Tele, but I do rememeber I’d chosen it over a Hagstrom III.   I think it may have something to do with how easy it was to play, since the fat neck and high action on the Kay were things I hated even more than the total lack of treble the guitar managed to produce from the pickup mounted up near the fretboard.  I do think I made the right choice, though.

I still have that guitar.   It accomplished what my parents had hoped it would for the most part: my grades improved and I had no further brushes with the athorities.   Moreover, it has given me a rewarding lifetime activity and  provided me with a sense of identity I might ontherwise not have.   Music is a the prism through which I experienced the spectrum of life as it unfolded before me.   It helped me to understand not only myself, but those around me and spurred my curiosity towards many things.