Friday, December 18, 2009

My YouTube debut

A few weeks ago I read some of my work at Story Slam! Charlotte as part of a local writers' night. The lovely and talented Tonya Jameson shot some video, and Lord help us all, I'm now on YouTube. Five things you should know before you watch:

1) Why yes, I am a rather large man. I noticed that too.

2) I'm still working on the first set of reading glasses I bought a year and a half ago. They were the $7.98 special at Costco. I had no idea they had gotten quite that crooked.

3) Believe it or not, that's my real voice. I had throat surgery years ago and ended up with a voice that I like to call "obscene phone caller in training."

4) We didn't realize my beard would scratch the microphone, so every time I turn my head to the right, it sounds like somebody unwrapping a peppermint in church.

5) This bumps right up against YouTube's 10-minute limit, so there's a little skip in the middle and you don't get to see the wild applause, panties being thrown on stage, etc., at the end.

So if I haven't run you off completely, here's my essay on the song "Chevy Van." I wrote this for the book "Making Notes: Music of the Carolinas." The fellow on guitar is the great Steve Stoeckel of Charlotte's legendary Spongetones.

If you want more -- and if you do, well, thanks, Mom -- you can see three more videos from that night over at my YouTube channel. Yes, I now have a YouTube channel. The world is a strange and wonderful place.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Bill James, same-sex benefits, and the big picture

I had been agreeing with Bill James a lot lately. He properly demanded more accountability in the tangled mess involving the DSS Giving Tree -- a mess that I have some personal interest in seeing solved. He's a necessary check on county spending, even if I'd rarely cut the things he wants to cut. He even sent me an e-mail educating me on the wonders of Blu-Ray. I thought we had a good thing going.

Should have known it wouldn't last.

Bill said a cruel thing to fellow county commissioner Vilma Leake during the debate Tuesday night over county benefits for same-sex partners. He might not have thought it was cruel -- still might not think that -- but imagine if Leake had been talking about a son who died of a drug overdose, and Bill had leaned over and said, "Your son was a junkie, really?"

There's been a lot of predictable reaction on all sides. But to spend time and energy worrying about Bill's stray comment misses the bigger point: His side lost. Providing benefits to same-sex couples is a logical step for any business, or government agency, that has a vested interest in the health and goodwill of its employees. It's just common sense.

Jeff Taylor at the Meck Deck blog has it right on the next step in the process -- a heterosexual couple will sue to claim their own benefits. That's fine. It gets us one step closer to the legislative and court decisions that will settle the issue and let people get on with their lives.

In the meantime, if you don't let gay couples marry, but you allow them benefits, it only makes sense to extend benefits to any couple that can prove a long-term relationship. (How about this compromise: No benefits for ANY couples, including married ones, until they've been in a stable relationship for three years. Given the divorce rate, that might save the county a bunch of money.)

These things move slowly, with fine-toothed gears, but over time the wheels turn. The arc of history is bending toward placing gay couples in the same civic space that heterosexual couples occupy. That's where the world is headed, and that's where Mecklenburg County headed Tuesday night. The vote was the story. All the words are just thin air.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Stories of the decade -- your thoughts?

So I'm doing a piece about the stories of the decade in the Charlotte area. It won't be just stories from this area -- of course there were events such as 9/11 that affected everyone, and I'll definitely mention those. But for now I'm trying to figure out the events that meant the most to people here at home. I'll be talking about a lot of different stories, but for our online package we're trying to come up with the 10 biggest stories of the decade.

That's where we need your help.

What follows is a list of ideas we came up with. Here's what I'd like you to do in the comments: 1) pick the two or three stories that you think were the biggest and 2) add any stories that you don't see on the list. We might end up changing or merging some of these ideas -- for example, I'm still trying to figure out how to frame THE big story about everything that happened with Charlotte's banks.

If you have time, I'd also like to hear about your life through the prism of these last 10 years. How did these events affect you? What changed for you between 2000 and 2009? What do you hope the next 10 years will bring?

(If you'd rather not talk about all that in the comments, just e-mail me at

Here's our working list of stories of the decade:

School desegregation trial

Panthers go to Super Bowl

First Union-Wachovia merger

Wachovia-Wells Fargo merger

Bank of America buys Merrill Lynch

Ken Lewis/Ken Thompson step down

Closing of Pillowtex mill in Kannapolis

Billy Graham leaves the public stage

Miracle on the Hudson

Officers Clark and Shelton killed in the line of duty

Rae Carruth trial

The lottery comes to the Carolinas

Jim Black goes to prison

Death of Dale Earnhardt

Foreclosure crisis hits home

Light rail comes to Charlotte

Charlotte Hornets leave town

Arena referendum fails; new arena built anyway

Plane crash at Charlotte-Douglas kills 21

Charlotte building boom

Charlotte building boom goes bust

Deaths of Jesse Helms and Strom Thurmond

2002 ice storm

Independence High football wins seven state titles

OK, that's plenty for now. So what do you think?

Friday, November 20, 2009

One last plug for Story Slam

I'll be reading some of my work tonight at Story Slam! Charlotte on Central Avenue, along with fellow writers John Hartness, Iesha Hoffman and Steve Stoeckel. You might know Steve as a member of the legendary Spongetones, but he's also a great writer.

I'm not sure how many pieces I'll be reading -- it depends on how the rest of the night goes, but I'm thinking two or three. I'm bringing a few columns and at least one piece that's not from the Observer. That piece requires a little music, and I'll have the great honor of having Steve serve as my backing band for that one. So if you don't like the story, at least the music will be good. And don't worry, I won't sing. You don't want to hear me sing.

There's beer, wine and soft drinks at the venue, plus a bunch of great restaurants within walking distance. Come early, have some dinner, make a night of it. Show starts at 8. The Story Slam! website has more details. Holler if you have any questions.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Catch me at Story Slam! Charlotte

Shameless plug alert: I'm going to do a reading (along with authors John Hartness and Iesha Hoffman) on Friday at Story Slam! Charlotte, which is a very cool performance series that started a few months ago in an intimate little space on Central Avenue.

Doors open at 7, show starts at 8, tix are $14. (FYI, John and Iesha are also reading Saturday night; I'm Friday only.)

I'll be reading a couple of columns and at least one other piece, and there might be a Special Mystery Guest. I've never done an event like this before. Probability of flop sweat on stage: About 80 percent. Come find out!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A soldier and his dog

Maybe it's good that Veterans Day is cold and rainy here. It's a reminder that the men and women who fight for us have to do their jobs in the cold rain, and the brutal heat, and all the other conditions that God and man set upon them. Maybe a good tribute today would be just to stand outside for a minute or two and think about that.

I've read two fine Veterans Day pieces today -- David Perlmutt's story from our paper, and Nancy Nall's essay from her blog. But the thing that got me was a little video someone posted in Nancy's comments. Here's a soldier, home from Afghanistan, and the dog who was waiting for him.

Good dog.

Monday, November 02, 2009

"Firebird" vs. the Flaming Lips

As we've been writing stories about "Firebird" -- the sculpture being unveiled Tuesday at the Bechtler Museum of Modern Art -- I kept thinking that it looked familiar. This morning, I figured it out.

Here's "Firebird":

And here's the cover to the Flaming Lips' 2002 album "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots":

I did a quick Google check and didn't see any connection... but anything that makes at least a few people think of the Flaming Lips makes Charlotte a little bit weirder. And that's a good thing.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Writing like a fifth-grader

A quick plug: I've got a new piece up today at Nieman Storyboard, part of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. (The Nieman folks are the ones who offer the fellowship that I was on for the last school year.)

The piece is about writing in a simple way, which is something I try (and often fail) to do. Would love to hear how y'all think about how you write, whether it's something professional or just an e-mail to the family.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Balloon Boy meets Hitler

I'm trying to do a serious column on the Balloon Boy for Sunday, but now I can't stop watching this.

(This Hitler scene, as you probably know, is the template for a million YouTube parodies. Be warned -- it's more addictive than Doritos.)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Avett Bros. cut short in big moment

Well, that was sort of anticlimactic.

The Avett Brothers' appearance on the David Letterman show was cut short Monday night (actually, early Tuesday morning). The band was a minute and a half, maybe two minutes, into the song "I and Love and You" when CBS (or maybe WBTV here in Charlotte) cut to commercial. (UPDATE: Fans from other cities tweet that they saw everything just fine. Could the Charlotte station be the only one that cut off the hometown band?)

The show came back on with Letterman standing with the band, saying "great song, guys" and waving goodbye.

Avett fans on Twitter are NOT happy.

What was on sounded good, if truncated -- if you know the song, you might have been able to tell that the intro was cut short. Late-night talk shows are notorious for giving bands small time windows, and the full version of "I and Love and You" -- which runs five minutes on the CD -- probably didn't fit. The show might have been running late, anyway -- after the Avetts were cut short I looked at the clock and it was 12:33. The show ends at 12:35.

It's been awhile since I've watched a late-night talk show all the way through... that felt like a loooong hour. The first two guests were Felicity Huffman ("Desperate Housewives") and Dr. Mehmet Oz (surgeon and frequent "Oprah" guest). Letterman did get off a Carolina-related joke in the monologue -- he said John Edwards had been through New York, and then showed an impregnated Statue of Liberty. We should be so proud.

 We'll see if there's any Letterman bump for the Avetts... the album goes on sale Tuesday. As in, today.

Here is a video posted overnight to

Friday, September 25, 2009

Avett Brothers Week, Day 5 -- Friday time-waster edition

First off, thanks to everyone who followed along this week... this was a lot of fun for me. I'll be really interested in what you think of the story on Sunday -- leave your comments in the story or just come back here and let me know your thoughts.

(The other dispatches from Avetts Week: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4.)

Today's Avett offerings are a little longer than the ones earlier in the week. This might be my favorite Avetts video -- it's a mini-concert they did for NPR a few months ago. It's about 15 minutes long and features "Laundry Room" (from the new album), "Down With the Shine" (unreleased) and "Bella Donna" (from the '07 EP "The Second Gleam.")

The other nugget is also from NPR -- it's a segment of the "World Cafe" show that aired last night. It has a few minutes of an interview with the band, plus three songs from the new album -- "Kick Drum Heart," "I and Love and You" and "Laundry Room."

Finally, here's an early review of the album from Paste magazine. It's a pain in the butt to read -- it's a digital copy of the magazine, and you have to search for "Avett" to find it -- but they love the record: 96 out of 100.

Key quote: "Having conquered every Saturday night music hall and holler between Asheville and Portland, they have made a record that is not just a stab at the mainstream -- it's a harpoon through its sternum."

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Avett Brothers Week, Day 4 -- new video shot in Charlotte

(For more on Avett Brothers Week -- leading up to my story on the band this Sunday -- check here, then here, then here.)

This morning the Avetts released the video they shot at Charlotte's Neighborhood Theatre back in July for the song "I and Love and You." It's on Myspace, and they won't let it be embedded into this post, but click here for the video.

As you'll see, they also shot some of the video around the Avetts' homes outside Concord. Their parents, Jim and Susie, are in there, along with crew members and friends. And if you were in the front couple of rows at the Neighborhood Theatre shoot, you're probably in the video.

Before I go, some Avett links from Twitter:

@theavettbros is the band's official Twitter feed.

@avettnation is a fan-oriented feed also affiliated with the band -- there's some overlap but @avettnation tends to be more prolific.

@joekwon80 is the feed from Joe Kwon, the Avett's cello player, featuring occasional haikus and photos of meals from the road.

And remember, you can listen to streaming audio of the new record all this week on NPR.

More thoughts on the new record or anything else Avett? Let's hear it...

I'm talking tonight...

as part of the New South for the New Southerner series at the Levine Museum of the New South uptown. It starts at 5:30; the real draws are my Observer colleague Sarah Aarthun, WCNC anchor Sonja Gantt, and appetizers from Mert's.

We'll be talking about living in the CLT, answering your questions and plugging Living Here -- the Observer's magazine for newcomers -- which comes out this Sunday.

The event costs $5 and they ask for an RSVP; here's more details. Hope to see y'all there.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Avett Brothers Week, Day 3 -- more video, plus fans debate!

(For earlier dispatches from Avetts Week, click here and here.)

Today's video clip is "Will You Return," from the 2007 album "Emotionalism." You'll see cello player Joe Kwon here -- he joined the band in '07 -- along with friends and crew members jammed in the back of the Avetts' tour bus. This song is an example to me of the band's evolution -- there's still a banjo in there, and they're still playing loud, but what carries the song is the early-Beatles-era melody.

A reminder: You can listen to the new album, "I and Love and You," streaming on NPR from now until the record hits stores on Tuesday.

A couple of other links:

-- The latest in the band's roll-out of mini-videos for each song on the new album: "Laundry Room."

-- The debate among longtime fans over the direction of "I and Love and You" is fascinating. Check out this discussion on the Avetts' official site and this one on the NPR site.

Let's continue the discussion here. Is the new record too different from the Avetts' older stuff, is it a natural progression, or something in between? I'd love to hear your thoughts as we get Sunday's story ready. What do you think?

Avett Brothers Week, Day 2 -- update w/Letterman info

UPDATE: Columbia Records announced today that the Avetts will play David Letterman's show Monday -- the night before "I and Love and You" hits stores -- and will also appear on the Craig Ferguson late-night show Oct. 6. They'll be doing the song "I and Love and You" on Letterman (11:35 p.m. on CBS) and "Laundry Room" on Ferguson (12:35 a.m., also CBS).

(For an explanation of why it's Avett Brothers Week on the blog, check here.)

Yes, the new record -- "I and Love and You" -- is now available for listening. But first, a quick study in contrasts.

The Avetts made their name by playing bluegrass instruments with punk intensity -- a friend of mine described them as Doc Watson and the Clash thrown into a blender. Here's a clip that really shows off that style -- "I Killed Sally's Lover" (from the 2003 album "A Carolina Jubilee"), played at a record-store appearance in Knoxville.

Now then. Late last night, NPR put up "I and Love and You" in its entirety on streaming audio. It's not in stores until next Tuesday, but the streaming version should be up all this week. Thanks to the magic of the embedded player, you can listen to it right here:

The track list:

1. I and Love and You
2. January Wedding
3. Head Full of Doubt, Road Full of Promise
4. And It Spread
5. The Perfect Space
6. Ten Thousand Words
7. Kick Drum Heart
8. Laundry Room
9. Ill With Want
10. Tin Man
11. Slight Figure of Speech
12. It Goes On and On
13. Incomplete and Insecure

(To listen to individual tracks, go here.)

The Avetts have always played around with different arrangements and tempos, and from talking to them, they see "I and Love and You" as a natural progression. But you'll find a very different sound than you hear on that YouTube clip.

So, Avett fans: What do you think of the new songs? Or are you trying to hold off on hearing them until you can get a CD in your hands next Tuesday?

And if you're new to the band, what do you think?

Avett Brothers Week begins

So this Sunday we're publishing a story I've been working on about the Avett Brothers -- the band from Concord that puts out its first major-label record, "I and Love and You," on Sept. 29. To lead into the story, I'm making this week on the blog Avett Week. Every day I'll post a video from the band's career and add a couple of links... if you're not familiar with these guys, by the end of the week I hope you'll be caught up. I also hope to have some news on the band to post along the way.

Today's video is the earliest I could find on YouTube -- it's from 2003, a couple years after the band formed. You'll see Scott Avett on banjo, Seth Avett on guitar and Bob Crawford on bass. They didn't have a title for this song at the moment, but it later became "Swept Away," on the 2004 album "Mignonette."

It's a fan video, so it's pretty ragged -- Seth's head never quite makes it into the light -- but then again, the band was pretty ragged back then too. Still, you can already start to hear their knack for melody.

Today's links:

The Avetts' official site.

Their bio on the Columbia Records site.

Avett fans: What are some of your favorite videos/sites? Add 'em in the comments, please...

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Misty water-colored... daisies?

For some reason -- no idea why -- the childhood song that plays the most in my mind's jukebox is "A Daisy a Day." It's a sweet little story -- 98 percent high-fructose corn syrup -- about a couple who walk the streets together, and how the guy thinks about his love even after she passes on.

I'll give you a daisy a day, dear / I'll give you a daisy a day / I'll love you until the rivers run still / And the four winds we know blow away.

I'm not good at remembering lyrics -- I can't even come up with the whole chorus of "Kookaburra," and we sang that roughly 6 million times in elementary school -- but damn if I won't be cutting grass or reading a book and find myself whistling "Daisy a Day." Whatever hook that melody has on me, it's sunk deep.

I thought about "Daisy a Day" when I heard that Henry Gibson died. The obit mentions his big break as a cast member on "Laugh-In" and his movie work, including his classic role as the head Nazi in "The Blues Brothers." But I was disappointed that it didn't mention what I remembered most -- his hit version of "A Daisy a Day." For years, every time that song has played in my head, I can see him singing it.

So I went to YouTube, the home of every inch of video ever shot, to find the clip. I looked. And kept looking. And then went to Google.

I couldn't believe it.

Henry Gibson, best I can tell, never sang "A Daisy a Day." He carried a daisy around as his comedy gimmick -- remember, this was the '60s -- but he didn't sing.

It was another "Laugh-In" regular who did the song -- Jud Strunk, who had a top-20 hit with it in 1973, when I was 9. Here he is doing the song on Carson:

(Unbelievable factoid of the day: According to the Jud Strunk website, "A Daisy a Day" was the first song played on the moon. This falls under the category of "too good to check.")

The point is, for the last 30-some years, I have held in my mind the indisputable fact that Henry Gibson sang "A Daisy a Day." And now it turns out I was completely wrong.

So I'm wondering which other childhood memories are wrong. Did Anna Cheshire not wink at me that day in second grade? Did I not find that magazine of dirty jokes and have NO idea what they were talking about? Did I not goof around with darts and stick holes in our new Formica table? (No, I'm pretty sure that one's real... my mom still gets steamed about it.)

Here's some advice for you 9-year-olds out there: Start writing it all down. Now. Or someday you'll be humming "Billie Jean" and thinking about that great singer, Michael Jordan.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

100 Words Or Less: What would YOU say to schoolkids?

By you know you've heard all about the controversy over President Obama's speech to the nation's schools today; maybe you've even read the text. What I'd like to know this morning is what YOU would say to America's schoolchildren, if you had the chance.

I'd prefer that this doesn't turn into an argument over the president's policies -- if you're interested in that, the conversation on my Sunday column has been going on for a couple of days now. Take this time to think about what the children of this country ought to hear. And although President Obama is taking a lot more words, you have to do it in 100 words or less.

Monday, August 24, 2009

100 Words Or Less: Predictions on health care

Today I'd like to hear something a little different from you on the issue of health care. I'm not looking for what you WANT to see happen with health-care reform; I'm interested in what you think WILL happen with health-care reform.

I'm hoping this will be a test of how the 24/7 news cycle in a given day or week matches how events really play out. Obviously, serious health-care reform -- especially a public option -- looks to be in trouble right now. But how about a year from now? Where will we end up then?

That's the kind of prediction I'm looking for. We'll come back to this along the way and see how the guesses turned out. Look into the future and tell me what you think... in 100 words or less.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Four teachers

On Tuesday I spoke at Beverly Woods Elementary School -- the principal, Caroline Horne, asked me to come talk to the teachers as they were getting ready for a new school year. One of the main rules of writing is, never use material once if you can use it twice. So here's the talk I gave. As you'll see, it's not exactly local news or anything... but maybe you have some memories of the teachers who made a difference for you.

When Ms. Horne called me a couple months ago to come and speak here, she was looking for me to give sort of a pep talk. To be honest, though, I’m not sure pep is what y’all need. I know it must be a strange time to be a teacher in CMS. If I were a teacher, I’d feel like I was getting a lot of conflicting messages right now about how I was valued, how I fit into this county’s larger plans, how much difference I was making in the world.

So I’m not going to stand here and tell you how everything is gonna be great, because I don’t know that, and I don’t think anyone else does either. What I want to tell you about this morning is four teachers who made a difference in one boy’s life.

My first-grade teacher was Clara Lewis. This was 1970, at a little elementary school on the coast of Georgia. I didn’t know until years later that it was the first year the schools in our county were fully integrated. I don’t know how it might have been different, because I don’t have anything to compare it to. All I can tell you is the first schoolteacher I ever had was a black woman, and I never knew there was anything different about it because Ms. Lewis kept our class busy and quiet and peaceful.

Now I will say that our whole elementary school was generally quiet and peaceful, and there was a reason for that. Our principal, Mrs. Barone, had on her desk a large wooden paddle that had an electrical cord coming out of the end. It was the stuff of legend. Nobody I knew actually got hit with the electric paddle, but everybody I knew seemed to KNOW somebody who got hit with the electric paddle. Now, of course, I know that she just drilled a hole and glued a power cord in there. But at the time, the electric paddle was the nuclear weapon of our elementary school. Nobody did anything really bad because we were all terrified that it would be launched.

By the way, feel free to use that electric-paddle idea here this year.

Back to Ms. Lewis: That first-grade classroom, in a changing school system, could have been a place of conflict or confusion. But instead it was a place of peace, where we all sat down together and learned. That was because of one great teacher.

My seventh-grade English teacher was Lillian Williams. My family had moved just before seventh grade started, from one side of the county to the other, and so I was in a new middle school. English was my first class on my first day of seventh grade. Ms. Williams got up and started telling us how much we would learn in the year ahead and how we’d all be ready for high school next year. Slowly, as she talked, it dawned on me that somehow I had landed in an eighth-grade classroom.

Well, it turned out that when I had enrolled, the assistant principal took one look at me – I was a big boy even back then – and assumed I was an eighth-grader. I was at a brand-new school, with no friends, and I was embarrassed. But Ms. Williams talked to me, and took a look at my test scores, and then she did something she didn’t have to do. She went to the principal and said: Let me keep him. So I took eighth-grade English, and seventh-grade everything else, and made two sets of new friends. I’m still best friends with a couple of those guys more than 30 years later. I even ended up playing Charlie Brown in the school play, which Ms. Williams directed. That year turned out to be one of the best years of my life, and it was because of one great teacher.

My 10th-grade English teacher was Brenda Hunt. When I was in 10th grade it would probably be fair to say I had not applied myself much in school. I had good grades, but I was just doing what it took to get by, and I had been hanging out with a pretty shady crowd. Ms. Hunt never said a word to me about any of this. What she said to me, instead, was that she thought I could write.

She was in charge of the high school literary magazine, and for the next three years I filled that sucker up with Stephen King wanna-be short stories, and authoritative-sounding essays, and sonnets written to girls who had never even heard of me. One thing I tell people who want to write for a living is that to be a good writer, first you have to be a bad writer. Ms. Hunt let me be a bad writer, and she showed me how to get better. I didn’t know it at the time, but I now had a career right in front of me, and it was because of one great teacher.

My high-school debate coach was Wayne Ervin. The other three teachers who played big roles in my life were serene and even-tempered. Mr. Ervin was… not. He used to keep a bundle of yardsticks in the corner of his classroom, and if he caught somebody not paying attention, he would crack a yardstick across the corner of his desk and just break it into splinters. Our senior year, some students went in together and bought him a steel yardstick about an inch thick. When I came back to visit from college, it was sitting in the corner of the room, bent in half.

But if you took Mr. Ervin’s salary, and divided by the number of hours he actually worked, he was probably making about half of minimum wage. He came in early and stayed late and traveled just about every weekend with his debate students and his Model United Nations students. I was in both of those groups. We were public-school kids, a lot of us lower-middle-class or worse, but Mr. Ervin had taught us so well that we went up against the private-school kids and held our own. I gained a confidence in those activities that I had never found in myself before. And that was because of one great teacher.

I suspect that many of you have already had students come through your classroom who will one day think of you as one great teacher. I know you don’t get paid what you ought to get paid, I know you don’t always get the respect you deserve… all I can tell you is that every time that bell rings, you are creating memories for the children in your class. And doing that job well can be a reward that lasts not only your lifetime, but the lifetimes of the kids you teach.

Let me tell one last quick story. When I was in high school, I got to be close friends with a guy named Virgil. We’ve been friends about 30 years now, and except for my wife, he’s the best friend I have. One day, years after we got to be friends, somehow we got to talking about the teachers we had when we were growing up. I was telling him about this great first-grade teacher I had at St. Simons Elementary named Ms. Lewis.

He looked at me like I had hit him with a brick.

Ms. Lewis was his grandmother.

And years after I had come through her class, of course she remembered that nice boy named Tommy. She’s in her 80s now. I still send her Christmas cards. And that’s the sort of thing that can happen in your life if you have one great teacher.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Jimi and Jose do the anthem

As a supplement to this morning's column about Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, here's the best YouTube I found of Hendrix doing the anthem:

And here's the best audio I could find of Jose Feliciano's version from the '68 World Series, also mentioned in the column... the video is a slideshow of a July 4th parade. Appropriate.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Creativity, and not quitting

I hear from a lot of people who want to be writers. They want to know the secrets to being a professional writer. You can easily spend thousands of dollars on books and magazines and seminars on how to be a successful writer -- or how to succeed in any kind of creative field. The one secret I know -- it's a secret most people don't want to hear -- is this:

Don't quit.

Ira Glass, of NPR's "This American Life," says it even better. Take this to heart, go create something, and have a great weekend.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Local boy does good

When I came to the Observer, 20 years ago this summer, I didn't know anybody. I was a one-person bureau in Lancaster, S.C., and on Tuesdays I drove up to Rock Hill for a staff meeting. That trip to Rock Hill was a big deal -- I wasn't making many friends in Lancaster, and it was good to just hang out with people I liked. The guy I ended up hanging out with most was one of our sportswriters, Joe Posnanski.

Joe was even younger and greener than I was. He had majored in accounting at UNC Charlotte until he realized one day that the last thing in the world he wanted to be was an accountant. What he really wanted was to write sports. So he wrote a letter to the Observer asking for a job. The paper took a chance on him and put him in a slot compiling agate, the tiny type of stats and standings on the sports page. Every night Joe would put together the agate, and in the spare moments between deadlines he would write columns about the sports news of the day. These columns were never published. Joe was writing for, literally, nobody. But somehow an editor found the columns in the computer system. The paper gave him a writing job. When I was down in Lancaster County, covering car wrecks and sewer-line breaks, he was in York County covering high-school basketball and writing the weekly volleyball notebook. We bonded over sports and music, we swapped stories from our favorite writers, we burned to get better and move up.

Sometimes, after work, we'd throw a baseball around in the parking lot of Joe's apartment complex, and we'd dream about where our careers might go. At the time our biggest dream was just to make it into the main office in Charlotte (we called it the Big House, or sometimes the Mothership). But sometimes we'd talk about other dreams, like maybe actually writing a column someday, or even working for a magazine. Our favorite magazine -- the defining magazine for both of us growing up -- was Sports Illustrated. They had the great Frank Deford, they had the brilliant Gary Smith, they told the kinds of stories we wanted to tell. But that was a dream too far away, in another galaxy somewhere.

Since those days in the parking lot, Joe moved on to write columns in Augusta, Ga., and then Cincinnati, and for the last 13 years in Kansas City. His blog has hundreds of thousands of readers. His third book is coming out in a few weeks.

And yesterday, my buddy Joe accepted an offer to become a senior writer at Sports Illustrated.

Joe has tremendous talent -- had it all along. But you can draw a straight line from Sports Illustrated back to those nights on the sports desk when he wrote stories for nobody, like shooting jumpers in an empty gym, hoping and planning for the day when he would get his chance.

I'm proud beyond words for my friend. But now I need to file this and get ready to write the next thing. That's what Joe would do.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Wedding video

Not mine. But, after seeing this, I wish we had thought of it.

(via Nancy Nall)

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Avett Brothers video report

UPDATE: Here's a slideshow by the great Observer photog Jeff Siner.

Some days this is not a bad way to make a living. Today I spent five hours at the Neighborhood Theatre watching the Avett Brothers shoot a video for "I and Love and You," the title track from their new record due out in September. I plan on writing a longer piece on the Avetts closer to when the record comes out -- this is a big moment for them. They've signed with a major label (Columbia Records), music guru Rick Rubin produced the album... it's one of those "on the verge of being huge" stories.

For now, though, a few vignettes from the video shoot:

-- Shooting a video means doing the song over... and over... and over. The director wanted Scott Avett to stage-dive into the crowd at the end of the song, and he dove at least a dozen times before everyone was satisfied with the shot. By the end he was about to lose his pants.

-- Between takes, the band played mini-sets of some older tunes, another song off the new record ("Head Full of Doubt, Road Full of Promise"), and even an untitled tune that's not on any album yet.

-- If you're an Avetts fan, and you're used to their "punkgrass" sound: This is different. "I and Love and You," as well as many of the other new songs, draw their heart from piano and Joe Kwon's cello.

-- Intrigued? The Avetts play two shows at the Myrtle Beach House of Blues this weekend, and play Bojangles Coliseum Aug. 8.

-- The director begged audience members (fans who signed up online) not to post video from the shoot to YouTube. But lots of people had their cellphone cameras out. We'll see if everyone keeps the promise.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

My Favorite Singer (This Week): Laura Izibor

This Irish R&B singer is clearly stalking me. I heard her for the first time on the radio a few weeks ago, then she kept popping up in magazines, and last night a buddy of mine put on her CD at his house. Then it turns out she's playing a Charlotte club called Utopia SoundStage this Friday night -- advance tickets are $20, contact info and directions are here. This is assuming she doesn't just show up on our porch or something.

Ladies and gentlemen, "Shine."

So what music is stalking you these days?

Monday, July 20, 2009

100 Words or Less: United Way

Last week we kicked off the "100 Words or Less" series with a discussion of Sarah Palin. This week we toss out this question: How could the United Way win you back?

As you might have seen, the Observer is soliciting ideas on how to solve the money crisis in Charlotte-area charities. That's more of a big-idea project. What I'm talking about is a smaller thing. Of course not everyone gave to the United Way even before its recent troubles. But if you did, or if you at least supported the concept, how could they rebuild your trust and make you willing to give again?

We'll have a special guest tackle this question in my Thursday column. For now, it's all yours. Just keep it on-topic, and keep it short -- maybe, you know, 100 words or less...

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Column up!

Today's column -- on feeling as a person vs. thinking as a citizen -- is served.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

My Favorite Band In the World (This Week): Tinted Windows

Let's roll out another weekly feature here on the blog... I love the obsession phase with bands or musicians where you can't hear them enough. This week my obsession is Tinted Windows. It's the power-pop formula (crunchy guitars plus sweet melodies) blended like a fine scotch... or maybe a bottle of Ripple at the Jiffy Mart. Either way, it tastes good.

It's also a supergroup of sorts -- the guitarist from Smashing Pumpkins, the bass player from Fountains of Wayne, the singer from Hanson (!), and on drums, the immortal Bun E. Carlos from Cheap Trick. Any band with Bun E. Carlos is all right with me.

Ladies and gentlemen, "Kind of a Girl."

So what are you listening to these days?

Monday, July 13, 2009

100 Words or Less: Sarah Palin

Today we're going to start what I think will be a weekly feature here on the blog: 100 Words or Less. I'll throw out a topic every Monday morning, and your job is to comment on it in, you guessed it, 100 words or less.

This week's question: What's the future for Sarah Palin? To me, she has the widest range of possibilities of any politician in America -- "world domination" or "near-total obscurity" seem to be equally likely outcomes at this point. Where do you think she'll end up, and why? Have at it. Just keep it on-topic, and keep the length to... you know.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Last two columns now online

Several sharp readers have let me know that my columns weren't updating properly online -- when one showed up the last one disappeared, the comments were all mashed into one stack, dogs and cats living together, etc.

You will not be shocked to know that this was all my fault -- I wasn't putting the right codes on each column, so our computer system was reading every one as the same column. (It pains me to give our computer system a pass on this one because I'm pretty sure we have the most unnecessarily complicated computer system in history. You know those "Wallace and Gromit" movies where Wallace invents this enormous multilayered contraption to, you know, make scrambled eggs? Our computer system is like that. Except half the time you get a plate of chicken poop instead.)

Anyway, thanks to the brilliant Tony Lone Fight of our online staff, the two columns that vanished are back on my column page in their rightful place -- both the Mark Sanford column from last Thursday and my official comeback column from Sunday. The comments may or may not come back -- consider it a fresh chance to try again. My apologies if your comments ended up in the ether. I can barely get the eggs scrambled over here.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Still want my MTV

We lived in the country and for most of my high-school years we didn't have cable. That meant we had six channels, maybe seven if the wind was right, and fine-tuning meant going out to the backyard with a monkey wrench and twisting the antenna. When MTV came around, this was like living in East Berlin. My best friend, Virgil, lived in town -- on the good side of the cable wall. So most days after school I ended up at his house.

Sometimes we would warm up with a little Asteroids on Atari. But before long we'd flip over to find out which one of the Original Five VJs was on the MTV afternoon shift. (The Original Five: Alan, Mark, JJ, Nina and Martha. No last names necessary.)

It's hard to describe what it was like going from a world where the Saturday-night TV choices were, literally, Lawrence Welk or "Hee Haw," to a world where all the musicians I loved -- and a thousand others I had never heard of -- were making little movies out of their songs. You might have grown up in a big city where this stuff was on the radio all the time. I grew up in a town where Casey Kasem's Top 40 was the cutting edge and we had never heard of, never seen, never imagined something like this:

After Michael Jackson's death a lot of people talked about the "Thriller" video as this massive cultural event, which it was -- bars would have "Thriller" nights where they would play it every hour on the hour. But for me the massive cultural events were happening every day. I remember watching that Eurythmics "Sweet Dreams" video, with androgynous Annie Lennox pounding that conference table, and thinking: I don't know what the hell this is, but it's pretty great.

MTV did that over and over again, up until about 1990 -- I think this was the last music video that mattered (at least for me). Since then, of course, the music videos have dwindled to pretty much nothing, and the schedule is now full of reality shows that are painful to watch, literally -- if you pay attention you can feel little pieces of your soul tearing off and flying away. Clearly it's a better business model than music videos; they're not stupid up there in the MTV offices. But watching the Michael Jackson videos all weekend felt warm and celebratory and great. And not just because it was Michael Jackson. For me it was like being in high school, and flipping on MTV at Virgil's house, and feeling that lovely little high of not knowing what would happen next.

Start me up

So it's Monday and I'm out on the street, looking for ideas... what should I be writing about? What's happened over the last few days (or weeks or months) that we missed? What do I need to know?

(By the way, my Official Comeback Column was in the paper yesterday... for some reason the comments online got merged with the comments from my Mark Sanford column from three days before. I don't know why, but it makes for an entertaining read.)

Thursday, June 25, 2009


Years ago -- this was probably the early '90s -- a group of us decided to each come up with the 100 greatest songs of all time. We had lots of different tastes in music so we ended up with lots of different lists -- this wasn't a "Stairway to Heaven" crowd, but I seem to remember "Born to Run" being at the top of one list, somebody else had something by the Smiths, somebody else had Sinatra. It's a great way to start an argument.

In my mind there was no argument. This was, and still is, the greatest single of all time. There's a lame Bill Cosby bit at the beginning but skip ahead to about 1:20.

We all know what Michael Jackson became -- he's the greatest test of all for those of us who struggle to separate the artist from the art. I can't even begin to articulate what his life was all about -- it was too tangled and weird to understand, and I'm sure he didn't understand himself either. About all I understand tonight is that this is one hell of a record. And what I want to do right now is play it over again.

Column up!

Well, hey there. I had hoped to plan out my comeback a little better than this, but the South Carolina governor had other ideas, so here's my first column after 11 months off.

I've got some things I want to play around with on this blog, and you'll be seeing that stuff shortly, but for now I want to throw it out to you: What's up? What have I missed since last summer? What should I be writing about? How's everybody doing?

And by the way... it's good to be back.