In Praise of Jonathan Cheechoo

I’m generally a patient person, slow to rile and evenhanded in my opinions. (Stop snickering, Mom.) Nevertheless, a few topics always set me off. I was infuriated that, following Beastie Boy Adam “MCA” Yauch’s death in 2012, not a single evening news program mentioned his musical innovation or humanitarian efforts, but EVERY STINKING ONE showed a clip of him spitting beer in the “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)” video from 1986. (I cheered myself up by imagining MCA’s friend the Dalai Lama setting them straight.) What else will get an earful from me? Sports articles calling Jonathan Cheechoo’s 56-goal 2005-06 season a strange, wonderful blip on a supposedly lackluster NHL career.

Nearly nine years after Cheechoo’s final game with the San Jose Sharks, he remains one of the team’s top ten scorers, top five in power-play goals and game-winning goals. His record-setting nine hat tricks for the Sharks (five in one season) remain an unassailable fact:

People conveniently forget the shudder-inducing injuries that cut his NHL days short. He suffered a brutal knee-to-knee hit in Game One of the 2007 playoff series against the Nashville Predators. Cheechoo was still the leading goal scorer for the Sharks that year, one season after winning the Rocket Richard trophy as the league’s leading scorer. There was also the double sports hernia so grisly that Sharks General Manager Doug Wilson expressed amazement that Cheechoo could walk, let alone play hockey. But play hockey he did. His post-Sharks career included a trade to the Ottawa Senators, stints with four AHL teams, and four years overseas in the KHL.

Yesterday, Jonathan Cheechoo announced his retirement from hockey after sixteen seasons. Today one article (not linking to it, sorry) opined that he’s likely to become a footnote in NHL lore. Let me see. Cheechoo is a former NHL All-Star, and a legendary figure in Sharks franchise history. The second Indigenous player to win the Richard, he remains strongly involved with the Little Native Hockey Tournament, and is considered a role model for youth players to this day. Hailing from tiny, remote Moose Factory, Ontario, he fulfilled his dream while strengthening ties to his community. Joe Thornton still proclaims Cheechoo the best hockey player with whom he’s played.

Don’t know about you, but that all sounds pretty significant to me. Congratulations, Cheech!

Today in History (September 4, 1919)

Today would have been the 96th birthday of Howard Morris, born in The Bronx on September 4, 1919. He was a Shakespearean-trained actor, Broadway star, voice artist, director, World War II First Sergeant…and Uncle Goopy!

The above Your Show of Shows sketch, “This Is Your Story,” features Carl Reiner as the host, Caesar as honoree Al Duncey, and Morris as surprise guest Uncle Goopy. It is considered Caesar’s finest by no less an authority than national treasure Mel Brooks, as well as show chronicler David Margolick and legions of fans. (Reiner and Morris first collaborated in a U.S. Army Special Services unit in Honolulu during World War II, entertaining troops in the Pacific.)

Morris also voiced hundreds of cartoon characters over the years, beginning in the early ’60s. (When the Flintstones had a household appliance, Morris usually voiced the long-suffering creature who powered it.) He continued to do voice work through the 1990s, while making the transition to voice directing. (I was thrilled to learn that he did both for one of my favorite underrated cartoon series, 1986’s Galaxy High. Its idea that aliens would consider Earth’s bookworm girls to be homecoming queen material resonated pretty deeply with me.) To top it off, Morris has two claims to fame in the cartoon music world. He voiced Jughead throughout the run of The Archies, and portrayed rock star Jet Screamer on a 1962 Jetsons episode. (Jet Screamer was named #44 on the Bubblegum Top 100 list featured in Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth. The Archies were #1.) The Violent Femmes went on to cover “Eep Opp Ork Ah-Ah,” but Morris sang it first:

For me (and many others), Morris is synonymous with one character: the immortal Ernest T. Bass from The Andy Griffith Show. (I find it hard to believe that the character appeared on just five episodes.) While Bass is possibly the edgiest resident of Mayberry, Morris’s portrayal makes him lovable during his most volatile moments. Morris revealed his process in a post on ernestt.com, the site maintained by his son David. It’s hard to pick a favorite Ernest T. episode (and discussions with my Bass-uberfan mother only complicate matters), but here are two I enjoy.

“My Fair Ernest T. Bass” (original air date: February 3, 1964)

The time-honored “be yourself” lesson is couched in some fantastic physical comedy. Watch Griffith’s expressions during some of his interactions with Morris: he’s having a hard time keeping a straight face!

“The Education of Ernest T. Bass” (original air date: October 12, 1964)

Bass’s psychological backstory injects an indie-movie level of quirkiness into the proceedings, and the back-to-school scenes are pure gold. Ernest T.’s reactions turn on a dime, resulting in another tour de force performance from Morris.

The world is a far duller and less entertaining place since it lost Howard Morris in 2005, but I take comfort in the fact that this Renaissance man will be remembered for generations to come.

Song In My Head #22: “Returns Every Morning” by Lilys

When Lilys released Better Can’t Make Your Life Better  in 1996, critics spent a lot of time playing “Spot The Influence.” Bewildered by Kurt Heasley’s turn toward classic pop and startled by his vocal resemblance to Ray Davies, some wrote it off as a mere Kinks pastiche. I consider the album to be one of the great underrated records of the past twenty years, and I’m not the only one to think so. (Carl Newman, famed for his songwriting with the New Pornographers and Zumpano, once admitted in an interview that his default warmup during any soundcheck is “Shovel Into Spade Kit” from this very Lilys album.) While hooks abound, it’s the off-kilter structure that makes these songs memorable.

Take the closing track “Returns Every Morning.” The vocal portion rivals Guided By Voices for brevity—one verse, one chorus. It’s sandwiched between a lengthy psychedelia-infused intro and a prolonged yet weirdly addictive guitar-and-drum fadeout. Yet, it all fits beautifully somehow.

I discovered this acoustic version the other day, which manages to lilt and swing at once. Does a commercial release exist? I hope so…

In honor of Star Wars Day…

Like many people, I’ve felt deep affection for Star Wars throughout my life. (Admittedly, I may be a casual fan compared to my childhood buddy Matthew, who’d seen the first movie ten times before he turned eight years old.) The films are always major events, but I particularly relish the unexpected Star Wars crossover moments in popular culture. As a child, I enjoyed the Sesame Street episode where R2-D2 fell madly in love with a fire hydrant. (Poor C-3PO had trouble convincing R2 that the romance would be star-crossed. Then again, as Anthony Daniels admitted about the hydrant years later, “Mind you–she was cute.”) Also, who could forget Mark Hamill on The Simpsons, playing Nathan Detroit in a Springfield dinner theatre production of Guys and Dolls…while sporting full Jedi gear? (Come on, you all know the words: “Luke, be a Jedi toni-i-i-i-ight…”)

I cherish my memories of Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination when it came to San Jose’s Tech Museum of Innovation in late 2013. I had to resist fangirl moments when I saw R2-D2 in the flesh (metal?) at the press preview event. The exhibition itself was really impressive, and its examination of droids’ place in society was extremely thought-provoking. (Those who are interested can read the whole article in my book, Going Coastal: Santa Cruz County and Beyond.)

To celebrate Star Wars Day properly, I present my favorite crossover of all to you: the February 23, 1980 episode of The Muppet Show, featuring the Star Wars cast. Mark Hamill is delightful as a bemused Luke Skywalker (who has no desire to appear on a “third-rate variety show”) as well as a desperate, struggling-actor version of himself (who, of course, will do anything to perform with the Muppets). The episode introduces my favorite underrated Muppet Show Muppet, Angus McGonagle (the gargling Argyle gargoyle). Hamill’s appearance with Angus alone…well, just watch, you’ll see. May the Fourth be with you, everybody!

Thoughts and theories on the 2014-15 San Jose Sharks’ season

When the Winnipeg Jets shut out the Minnesota Wild on Monday night, the San Jose Sharks were mathematically eliminated from Stanley Cup playoff contention. This breaks their ten-season streak of consecutive playoff appearances, second only to the Detroit Red Wings in the current era. The sports and Bay Area media don’t cut the Sharks much slack in the best of times, and there certainly will be a painful offseason ahead. My own feelings on the season are fairly complex, and I feel compelled to discuss them.

I became a Sharks fan in January 2004, right before their unexpected run to the Western Conference playoff finals. So, I’ve never known a time where the team didn’t make the postseason before now (though I have witnessed several close calls). I missed the truly dismal years the Sharks suffered early on, and the by-all-accounts disastrous 2002-03 season that preceded their lengthy playoff streak. In spite of all the griping Sharks fans tend to do about the lack of a Stanley Cup, we’ve been lucky, even blessed. In the more physical conference of a grueling league, consistently contending is an accomplishment in itself. While the Los Angeles Kings do indeed have two Cups while we have none, people forget that for several years the Sharks were in the postseason when the Kings were hoping for top draft picks. (Postseason appearances in turn exclude teams from top draft picks, which make it harder to find that game-changing franchise phenom. The Sharks have drafted well in the later rounds over the years, and there’s no way to know for sure if a few top-five picks would have pushed us over the playoff hump. But, the cellar-dwelling teams have been drooling over prospects Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel all year for a reason.)

I’m not a Pollyanna by any means. I truly believe that the Sharks would be in the playoffs this year if Doug Wilson had added a top-tier defenseman to the roster over the summer. I know that a top d-man is hard to come by, and there’s no way anyone could have predicted the injuries to the likes of Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Justin Braun this year. On the other hand, the loss of Vlasic to a Jarrett Stoll head shot in the 2014 Sharks-Kings playoff series was likely the major reversal of fortune that led to the Sharks’ historic series loss. I still don’t understand why management opted to sign multiple enforcers to the roster when there was ample salary cap to add a defenseman. Brent Burns could have stayed at the forward position, where he’d flourished in 2013-14. More importantly, there would have been more coverage for the younger players on the team, who naturally tend to struggle a bit with the faster NHL game. I was as baffled and frustrated as anyone by Wilson’s remarks last summer that the Sharks were a “tomorrow team.” (It could be argued that we came closer than anyone to beating the eventual Cup champions, and when I wrote Sharks COO John Tortora to protest the addition of ice girls last summer, I proclaimed that a rebuild was totally unnecessary.) Even so, I would hope that former Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Wilson didn’t intend to hang his players out to dry.

A lot of good things did happen this year, in spite of the way things shook out in the end. Rookies Melker Karlsson, Barclay Goodrow,  and Chris Tierney made impressive contributions, and young Taylor Fedun was a great end-of-year callup. Tommy Wingels and Matt Nieto cemented their development as two-way forwards. Ben Smith fit in well in the system, and I hope to see what he can do with a full year in teal. Joe Pavelski’s scoring touch and leadership abilities continued to amaze, and Vlasic quietly made his case for most underrated defenseman in the league. Even though I prefer Burns as a forward, he still made it to the NHL All-Star Game as a defenseman. As for Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, they continued to reach league milestones. (I’ll say it now: Thornton and Marleau ABSOLUTELY belong on the 2015-16 Sharks roster, in major capacities. Marleau had an off year, you say? His off year would be a dream season for most.) I know there will be changes in the offseason, but I hope that there’s not a horrific roster dismantling to compound the iffy rebuild this year. Sharks players and fans deserve much better than that.

In the immortal words of the  Ken Stringfellow song, here’s to the future. Go Sharks.

Song In My Head #6: “Green Machine” by the Apples In Stereo

In 1995, SpinART Records released Fun Trick Noisemaker, the full-length debut from Denver, Colorado band The Apples In Stereo. It became an instant classic for me on the first listen, and remains so to this day. (The Apples In Stereo are still my favorite members of the Elephant 6 collective, even though their sound and lineup  changed over the years.) Anyway, this is the fourth track, the glorious “Green Machine”:

Song In My Head #5: “Magic Words” by Blue Ash

Here is a rarity from Youngstown, Ohio’s Blue Ash, one of the most undeservedly obscure bands of the power pop era. (Those who are familiar with the genre will know that that’s saying a lot.) “Magic Words” was written in the mid-’70s, but remained unreleased until Not Lame Recordings issued the Around Again compilation in 2004. (The CD itself is out of print, but the individual tracks are available as mp3s from the usual vendors. There’s also a nifty new four-track 7-inch of songs from that era, released by the brilliantly named You Are The Cosmos label in Spain.) The song has everything: an irresistible lyrical premise, spookily beautiful harmonies, a rocking chorus, and cool instrumentation. (I must know if that’s a tamburica being played on the track. I’m fairly sure that it is.)

While the tragic death of guitarist Bill Bartolin cut the band’s 2009 reunion short, the surviving members soldier on in other projects. Various Blue Ash blogs seem to have scattershot updating, but bassist Frank Secich does maintain a Facebook page. With luck, we’ll all hear more soon!