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, 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!

Today In History (March 18, 1972)

On March 18, 1972, T. Rex played two concerts (a matinee and an evening show) at Empire Pool in Wembley, England. These were filmed for the 1972 concert film Born To Boogie, directed by Ringo Starr. (Yes, that Ringo Starr, as if there could be another!) Both shows featured acoustic and electric sets focusing on material from the band’s Electric Warrior and The Slider albums. While the film had a hit-and-miss theatrical release history, it was fully remastered for a long-awaited DVD reissue in 2005.

I’ve never understood why British glam rock didn’t take hold in the U.S., since it has everything as a genre: catchy songs, showmanship, and an all-too-rare sense of fun. As it is, I’ve loved the late Marc Bolan since I first saw archival footage of T. Rex doing “Get It On (Bang A Gong)” on MTV one day in 1985. (They showed videos then. Crazy, right?) Born To Boogie presents Bolan and his fantastic band at the height of their powers. When I first watched both concerts on the DVD set (where they’re presented in full), I was amazed that Bolan had no dip in stamina or enthusiasm from one show to the next. I especially love his tendency to engage in excessively polite and reserved stage banter before tearing into Hendrix-level guitar wizardry.

Here is the original film in its entirety:

If you’re pressed for time, you can watch the performance of “Hot Love” below (which begins after ten seconds). As T. Rex and Cheap Trick taught us, any song called “Hot Love” is bound to be good.


Today In History (March 8, 1945) / Song In My Head #2: “She’ll Be There” by Micky and Coco Dolenz

Happy 70th birthday to Micky Dolenz, a true Renaissance man of our era. He’s been a mainstay of stage, screen, and television since his debut in 1956 (as Micky Braddock) as the ten-year-old star of Circus Boy.  He’s published three books, worked extensively as a director, and become a successful radio host. Of course, Dolenz is best known from the show The Monkees, which ran on NBC from 1965 to 1967. The Monkees spawned a number of bonafide hit singles, many of which feature Dolenz on lead vocals. The history of the Monkees as a band is complex indeed, and has been known to evoke strong feelings in music fans and even the members themselves. I have been an unabashed fan of both the show and the music since I watched Monkees reruns as a child, and Micky Dolenz’s performances have a lot to do with that. Dolenz himself seems more positive about the show than many of his cohorts, approaching it with refreshing good humor over the years. I still love his cameo in “The Grungies,” the classic 1992 sketch from The Ben Stiller Show:

(Why, yes, that was Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul star Bob Odenkirk as one of the bandmates! But back to the topic at hand…)

Dolenz wrote (with Mark Bego) one of my favorite memoirs ever, 1993’s I’m A Believer: My Life of Monkees, Music, and Madness. The anecdotes make it appeal to any fan of music or television, but Dolenz’s honesty and easygoing humor make it much more than a Hollywood novelty. It’s especially clever when Dolenz presents personal traumas (his Vietnam draft physical, battles with the Monkees show producers) as film scenes or seriocomic dream sequences. This is why I was thrilled to see him brought in as a last-minute replacement in the Celebrity Autobiography shows at San Francisco Sketchfest this past February. (For the record, he was equally compelling as Joe Namath, Tommy Lee, and Loni Anderson’s pool boy. I admired his willingness to appear in a show that sends up celebrity memoirs, but then he must know that his own is too good to ever become fodder for the show.)

In August 2005, Dolenz played two free shows at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk as part of their annual summer concert series. While I would have substituted songs such as “Goin’ Down” and “Randy Scouse Git” for some that he performed, Dolenz sounded great and had real stage presence. The woman singing backup had a phenomenal voice, and I couldn’t wait to find out who she was. I was delighted to learn that she was none other than Micky’s older sister, Coco! Their take on “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” was the evening’s highlight for me.

This leads to the second installment of the “Song In My Head” series here on the blog. First of all, I want to apologize to anyone reading this who attended the early show at the Boardwalk that night in 2005. You see, I was screaming “Play ‘She’ll Be There’!” every five minutes (to no avail, sadly) at Micky and Coco. (The rest of you will understand why in a few moments.) I first heard this song on a mix tape sent to me by my Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth editor David Smay when I was in college, and I was knocked out by its beauty. Featured on volume three of Rhino Records’ Monkees 1996 rarities collection Missing Links, this understated gem deserves a much bigger audience. Thrill to the delicate acoustic melody and the perfect harmonies of Micky and Coco:

Today In History (February 28, 1984)

On February 28, 1984, “Weird Al” Yankovic released “Eat It,” his parody of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” as a single. Written by Yankovic and produced by Rick Derringer, it would reach #12 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The song met with international success as well, becoming a #1 single in Australia (besting its inspiration’s chart position) and reaching #6 in New Zealand. “Eat It” won the Grammy for best comedy recording in 1984, and was certified gold by the RIAA in 1989.

Why does “Eat It” endure while countless parodies (and parodists) have not? Part of it has to do with the care Yankovic took in its craftsmanship. Funny lyrics aside, the song sacrifices none of its inspiration’s sonic heaviness. Producer Derringer’s credentials include guitar work on Alice Cooper’s Killer album, and he was enlisted to play the guitar solo on Yankovic’s recording. (Some people still are convinced that it was Eddie Van Halen, who played the solo on Michael Jackson’s recording, proving Yankovic’s painstaking attention to detail.) The exactitude is especially obvious when you watch the “Eat It” video (which deservedly became an MTV staple) alongside “Beat It”:

(Interestingly enough, Yankovic has gone on to direct videos by artists as diverse as Hanson and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. But I digress.)

“Weird Al” Yankovic deeply influenced my youth. I got the “Eat It” single (I even played the B-side, “That Boy Could Dance,” repeatedly), followed by Yankovic’s In 3-D. I lipsynched that album’s reggae spoof, “Buy Me A Condo,” for a grade-school talent show (where I brought the house down, if I do say so myself). Eventually, I wrote a fan letter. I distinctly remember addressing him as “Weird” Al Yankovic instead of “Weird Al” Yankovic, even then realizing the implication that I didn’t think of him as weird. (I didn’t! I still don’t.) He replied promptly and sent three autographed photo postcards: one for me, and one each for my mom and grandma. Cool, no?

Naturally, when Yankovic went on tour in 1985 to support his Dare To Be Stupid album, I had to see him play. I begged my mom to buy tickets for his show at the now-defunct Circle Star Theatre in San Carlos, and we forced my older brother to drive us there. (Since my dad had to go to work the next day, he didn’t join us.) Yankovic’s showmanship was impressive, and his crackerjack band (featuring drummer Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz) could go from Devo-esque New Wave to full-on James Brown soul on a dime. (Yes, sticklers, I am aware that this show predated “Living With A Hernia”: Schwartz would lead the band in a clever vamp during Al’s lengthiest costume change.) I maintain that Yankovic is the ideal first concert experience, because watching him is like seeing many bands at once.

San Francisco Sketchfest presented a tribute to Yankovic last month at the Castro Theatre. During Chris Hardwick’s interview and the audience Q&A afterward, I was struck by two things. The house was packed with fans of all ages, which I expected. I was surprised, however, that most attendees mentioned something other than “Eat It” as their first “Weird Al” exposure. (Hardwick, who is a few years older than I am and lived in the “Eat It” era, discovered him through the 1999 Running With Scissors album.) Yankovic’s 14 studio albums embrace a wide array of styles and subjects, and have given the artist at least one Top 40 hit in every decade since he began recording. (The only other two artists to do that are Madonna and Michael Jackson.)

Comedy is hard, but Alfred Yankovic still makes it look easy, a full 31 years after “Eat It.” May his legend continue to grow.