Saying Goodbye to America’s Showplace

Well they blew up the Chicken Man in Philly last night
you know they blew up his house, too.
-Bruce Springsteen

I hate seeing things I loved as a kid get torn down or paved over.  Green space in Lehigh and Montgomery Counties, PA, for example.  The cornfields behind my old neighborhood mowed down for overvalued McMansions that block the fireworks from three cities on the 4th of July.  More recently, Veteran’s Stadium.  Now, finally, the Spectrum.

America's Showplace

You might not know this, but the Spectrum invented the concept of arena as rock show apogee.  Without it, Bruce Springsteen would, quite literally, not have been possible.  Opened in 1967, the Spectrum was the first of its kind, “America’s Showplace.”  The Sixers and Flyers won championships there.  I saw Dr. J play there, and Charles Barkley.  I held a Hulk Rules sign and swore the Red and Yellow pointed right at me from the ring in post-win celebration.  I saw Shawn Michaels roll Marty Janetty over while the seeds of their inevitable feud were being sewn.

Bruce Springsteen and hundreds (thousands?) of others got their first big-venue gigs at the Spectrum, due in part to Philadelphia’s legendary support of rock radio and working-class talent.  Sure, there were old-time concert halls and places like Madison Square Garden, but the Spectrum was the first indoor sports facility to have been specifically built with popular music shows also in mind. It was the first premier arena of the rock era.  As such, it was the place to be seen and heard, and like Esther Smith would say, it was right here in my own back yard.

Last night, they finished tearing the last old concrete guts and bones from this historic place.  On October 20, 2009, I was lucky enough to be on hand for Bruce Springsteen & The E-Street Band’s last-ever Spectrum show.  In case you don’t know, Bruce is a Philly favorite, an adopted son from just across the river, and he and Billy Joel had their own banners in the rafters of the Spectrum for their record-setting streaks of consecutive sellout shows (still counting.  The banners have been in the CoreState/First Union/Wachovia/Wells-Fargo Center for years, but Bruce’s was moved back for his last stand at the Showplace.)

The 10/20 show was historic by default: the last rock arena, the last rock star, the last time in Philly.  The last time in the place where modern concert-going and giving started, the last time in the place where The Boss cut his teeth.  Sitting in the Spectrum, you’re right down the street from all other kinds of American history.  Throw in the themes of the Born In The USA album, which was played in its entirety, and you’ve got yourself a certain kind of seminar.  In the context of the financial crisis, the wars, the Revolution, the loss of dear things, the loss of dear people, the loss of whole places, it was powerful to feel so obviously American and so absolutely not ironic.  When the band opened with “The Price You Pay,” which they hadn’t been played live since 1981, the tone was set:  recognition, celebration, sincerity, thanks.  “Wrecking Ball,” a paean to the lost shrines of our youth, was exuberant even in its decidedly antifatalist fatalism:

Now when all this steel and these stories, they drift away to rust
And all our youth and beauty, it’s been given to the dust
And your game has been decided, and you’re burning the clock down
And all our little victories and glories, have turned into parking lots
When your best hopes and desires, are scattered through the wind
And hard times come, hard times go
Hard times come, hard times go
And hard times come, hard times go
Hard times come, hard times go
Hard times come, hard times go
Yeah just to come again

Bring on your wrecking ball
Bring on your wrecking ball
Come on and take your best shot, let me see what you’ve got
Bring on your wrecking ball
Bring on your wrecking ball (bring on your wrecking ball)
Bring on your wrecking ball (bring on your wrecking ball)
Take your best shot, let me see what you’ve got, bring on your wrecking ball

The view form our seats.

That this set would be a once-in-a-lifetime rock and roll moment was never really a question, but there are all kinds of emotional intangibles going on in settings like this.  It wasn’t just Bruce’s last show at the Spectrum.  It wasn’t just the last time the Spectrum would welcome Bruce or any of us home.  It wasn’t just Clarence Clemmons’ last time ever in Philly as part of E-Street (be healthy, Big Man), and it wasn’t just the ghosts of 42 years piled to the ceiling.  It was all of these things, but also the kind of joy that comes from impossible defiance and being in the company of thousands of strangers celebrating something immediately collective. That E-Street, the tightest band to ever grace the Earth, and Bruce, the greatest figure not named Elvis, were the evening’s spiritual directors meant the farewell ritual would be orchestrated perfectly.  That these fans are passionate and savvy, that these songs are about them, meant something else entirely.  This was rock and roll church in a very sacred sense. Afterward I texted one word and one word only: transcendent.  There were even random acts of kindness. When Joe Torre and Donnie Baseball casually assumed regular-guy seats in the middle of the Phillies/Dodgers NLDS, Philly fans actually greeted them with warm applause and good-hearted jibes.  Call that appreciation for a respected baseball man (Philadelphia knows its baseball and its baseball manners. Remember when we booed Brett Meyers for walking Griffey when Griffey was sitting at #599?), call it Brotherly Love.  I call it everyone being in on what the night was all about.  Grown men cried.  Children laughed. Bruce slow-danced with his 90-year old mom.  Quite simply, it was perfect.

Below are two videos from the night of the show.  The first is a short clip of “The Price You Pay” taken on my camera phone.  The second (not by me) is “Higher and Higher.” Given the angle of the later shot, it’s quite possible that two of the smiling, transfigured faces behind Bruce belong to me and my #1 Bromance respectively.  Yep, I got to go to the best rock show ever with my best friend, and he’s also the one who orchestrated the logistics and made the whole thing happen.  Seeing the concert of a lifetime with my life-long partner-in-crime, concert-going, and Meg Ryan movies was really the only way to do it.  What?  We also go see all the Apatow movies.  Hmmm? You don’t remember how cute Meg Ryan was in 90s?  So what if I cried when she died in City of Angels?  You were right, Johnny Rzeznik, the world won’t understand.  To Jonny my BFF, thanks again, brother. You’re the Nils Lofgren to my Steven Van Zandt.  The Nic to my Cage.  The Conan to my Andy Richter.  The David Spade to my Chris Farley.  The Ramon to my Vic.

There are lots of videos from 10/20 all over the web, but these two are significant to me:

Goodnight, friend.  America just lost of piece of itself. Thanks for the memories.

On Edison’s Birthday, Light an AC Current for Nikola Tesla

Google, you disappoint me.  Your whimsical doodle today is in honor of the 164th birthday of one Thomas Alva Edison.  Industrial Prometheus, titan of invention, bringer of lux et veritas et cetera.  Too bad he was a total jackwagon.

This guy.

Don’t let anyone fool you.  For the love of money and power, Edison played a strong hand in the destruction of the most brilliant human being to ever walk the earth. Nikola Tesla‘s face should be on money. It should have been renamed the Tesla Prize.  Think Leonardo Da Vinci with alternating current, electromagnetic breakthroughs, contributions to ballistics, robotics, nuclear physics.  Think the wireless transmission of energy to electric devices by 1893.  Think of where we’d be with that now.  Think remote controlled submarines in 1898.  Think of using the Earth itself as a conductor of free energy.  Think of every cool steam-punk thing you ever saw or read.  Imagine having landed on the moon in 1920 instead of 1969.

Thomas Edison.  Happy Birthday, jerk.

Hard Speil and Hi-De-Ho: Cab Calloway’s Hepster’s Dictionary

From the introduction to the 1940 edition:

Some six years ago I compiled the first glossary of words, expressions, and the general patois employed by musicians and entertainers in New York’s teeming Harlem. That the general public agreed with me is amply evidenced by the fact that the present issue is the sixth edition since 1938 and is the official jive language reference book of the New York Public Library.

“Jive talk” is now an everyday part of the English language. Its usage is now accepted in the movies, on the stage, and in the song products of Tin Pan Alley. It is reasonable to assume that jive will find new avenues in such hitherto remote places as Australia, the South Pacific, North Africa, China, Italy, France, Sicily, and inevitably Germany and wherever our Armed Forces may serve.

I don’t want to lend the impression here that the many words contained in this edition are the figments of my imagination. They were gathered from every conceivable source. Many first saw the light of printer’s ink in Billy Rowe’s widely read column “The Notebook,” in the Pittsburgh Courier.

To the many persons who have contributed to this and the other editions, this volume is respectfully and gratefully dedicated.

—Cab Calloway

Read the dictionary here.

A sample from the A section:

Why Is It Called Microfiche? Or, Sometimes Google Is Slower Than Books

This particular adventure seems to have taken place in 2011.

I don’t remember what prompted me to think about microfiche last night, but I think it was probably Pawn Stars.  I do remember asking my wife why it was called microfiche in the first place, and I think she said “because it’s small.”  She then proceeded to pat me on the head and tell me everything was going to be alright.

I know we’re only a paragraph in, but I remember now.  It wasn’t because of Pawn Stars, but we were watching Pawn Stars while she was reading some historical newspaper articles online.  The quality of their digitized forms was very high, and we supposed that they must have been converted from microfilm by a local researcher in a library.  Then I said “maybe it was microfiche” and I started saying “fiche” over and over again until I sounded like the lunatic chef from The Little Mermaid.

Microfiche.  One more thing your kids won’t do, Generation X.  But your great-great-great grandkids might.  In the proper conditions, it turns out that microfiche may be a more stable method of date  preservation than digitization.   If you’re keeping track at home, that’s Analog Media 2, Digital Media 1.0 × 10100.   But the old school’s two points, one each for document/image storage and audio capture, arguably represent the summation of everything we preserve in the first place. Someone who knows more than I do about the merits of actual film and digital video should weigh in on the most stable ways to preserve The Princess Bride and my Christmas Concert ’89 tapes.  Did someone say “time capsule!”?

(Speaking of time capsules, the other day was the Super Bowl.  Generic congratulations to  all you Packer fans now out of the way, let’s talk for a quick second about Jim McMahon.  His Starting Lineup figure (Bears gear) was my contribution to a 7th grade time capsule still buried somewhere behind the junior high.  Why Jim?  Because I could not part with Randall Cunningham or Reggie White, obviously.)

Back to analog media.  A few days ago I got to watch a digitized version of some home movies from the 50s.  The originals were taken on Super 8, and let me just say: I’m glad for the ability to watch them without having to break out my projector screen (my house came with one, no lie), but there’s something dramatic and classy about what that film did with color.  The fact that no one dressed like slobs back then also helps.

And now to the heart of the matter.  Why, exactly, is it called microfiche?  I discovered the form through my junior high librarian, probably the same day she enlightened half the class (that would be my half of the class) by explaining what the ROM in CD-ROM was.  What an interesting little retro-future moment now that I think of it.  I had friends with email and BBS, but most of my digital communications knowledge was based on that episode of Silver Spoons that featured Mister Mister.  Anyway, I don’t remember Mrs. Willdonger telling us what fiche was in the first place.

I decided that my wife’s answer was finally inconclusive. Like you’re supposed to do when you get curious, I Googled microfiche.  I clicked the Wikipedia link (Wikipedia is way more letters than Google) and was taken to a catch-all page for microform.  Bush league, Jimmy Wales.  Way bush league.  Beer league, even.  If you think for one second there were etymologies on a hack job like this one, guess again.  If you’re not imagining me pronouncing “guess again” like Jimmy Dugan, you’re missing half the fun.

Back to Google I went. A few more clicks, a few more link farms.  Finally I checked an online dictionary.  Fiche is French for “peg, slip of paper, index card.”  Of course.  I have the llama from the cover of Vs. in my brain where junior high French should be.  Ask this guy about that one.

Rather than stubbornly insist that a laptop with an internet connection is always the best way to get information, it would have been much more efficient to run upstairs and hold aloft the 10-pound dictionary on my bookshelf for the reason microfiche sounds like such made-up word.

Analog Media: 3.

His Grandfather Drove a Covered Wagon. He Walked on the Frickin’ Moon.

Mark Zuckerberg
You have nothing to say.

“My great grandparents came across the southern United States in the 1870s to start a new life in the western territories. They were in a covered wagon drawn by horses, driving a few cattle to start a new herd. The railroads had not been completed, automobiles had not been invented; the electric light had not been invented. My father was born shortly after the Wright brothers made the first airplane flight — and I went to the moon…In less than a hundred years we went from covered wagons to going to the moon.”

I haven’t read the rest of this article yet, but go ahead and re-read the above paragraph.  Forty years ago today, Edgar Mitchell walked on the Moon.  His grandparents were honest-to-goodness pioneer pioneers, coming across the US when the US still had continental territories and things like horses and herds.  Two generations later, Edgar walked on the effing Moon.  How crazy is that?  This is something that’s always intrigued me about the 19th and 20th centuries…how someone born before the airplane was invented could live to see lunar landings.  Mitchell’s family history makes the point poetically.

In less than 100 years, we went from Conestoga wagons to walking on the Moon.  What have we done in the last 40?  Focused on the vastness of the microchip’s inner space, which is all well and good, but (and you know I’m serious) where are our jetpacks? Where are our Lunar and Martian settlements?  What’s the hold up?

Mark (Where’s Your Jetpack?) Zuckerberg image by jdlasica via Flickr

Happy Birthday, World We Live In!

So's your graphical user interface always makes sense.

The world we live in started on this day in 1984.   As Wikipedia just told me, it was 27 years ago today that “the first Apple Macintosh, today known as the Macintosh 128K, went on sale, becoming the first commercially successful personal computer to feature a mouse and a graphical user interface rather than a command line interface.”

Modern life, I am four years older than you.  You really ought to give me your lunch money.

Just kidding, modern life.  But I am thinking of extending my end point for Generation X from 1980 or ’82 to 27 years ago yesterday.  Which also happens to be the occasion of Hulk Hogan’s first WWF World Heavyweight Championship.  I don’t think the lines could be any more clear.

Generation X.2

If you’re roughly my age, we may share some of these academic distinctions:

  • Last or close-to-last class of students to attend various Cold War or pre-war era schools before their sometimes dubious 90s and 00s renovations.  (Elementary school, high school, college)
  • Last or close-to-last class to take a typing elective with actual typewriters. (9th grade, but I didn’t really learn to type until I started using AIM the next year.) Possibly the last class to even be offered a typing elective.
  • Last class to run DOS in a computer applications class. (10th grade)
  • Last class to run DOS-based email and instant messaging on campus servers. (college)

Presumed shared cultural experiences:

  • Old enough to have been into late 80s/early 90s music the first time, young enough to have looked up to the people who made it.  Old enough to have been into mid-80s music the first time, young enough to have had no way of buying it yourself.
  • Were in elementary school, not high school, when Bad came out.
  • Were in junior high, not college, when Kurt Cobain died.
  • Were the last group of kids to make mixtapes.  While the older and younger ends of Generation X differ in significant ways, this is one thing we all did right along with you, John Cusack.
  • Saw your first Molly Ringwald movie on VHS (or TBS), not at a theatre.
  • Your first John Hughes movie was more likely Uncle Buck or Home Alone than Sweet Sixteen or The Breakfast Club

Political memories:

  • the Soviets were scary until the end of elementary school. There was a Berlin Wall.

If you were born between, say, 1977 and 1982, a lot of this might hold true for you.  Most  commentators put those years within the Generation X set, and when I was a kid, I  thought that was the coolest.  But when I think of Generation X these days, I think of 40- year-olds, people who were in college in the early 90s (yes, I think of Lisa Bonet, don’t  you?), who were teenagers in all those Brat Pack movies.  I don’t think of people who are  about to or have only recently turned 30.  I don’t think of people our age. [Ed. note: I wrote and posted this 4 years ago.  I’m almost 35 now. Time only goes faster.]

Granted, generational definitions are sort of meaningless and almost always vast: the Baby Boomers are said to have been born between the mid-40s and mid-60s. What does that even mean?  Still, I’m with everyone who calls people in their 80s and 90s now The Greatest Generation.  They’re a group of people who went through it all and still had energy left over in their 60s and 70s to help take care of us. They were united by the Depression, the living memory of one World War, the coming and hell of another, and in many cases, the added hardships and injustices of recent immigration.

“Come Undone” was my first Duran Duran single. You do the math.

What binds, say, the Boomers?  Not being their parents?  What binds Generation X?  Music? Movies? Pop culture references and ironic savvy?  Being the first generation to have two parents working outside of the home as a norm? Birth years, as they relate to generational labels, seem now like unruly sundry cohorts lumped together with too much ease.  In our case, perhaps Generation X contains everyone as old as Eddie Vedder down to everyone young enough to have bought Ten in middle school.  Said the other way, perhaps it contains us and everyone 10-13 years older than us that made the music, television, movies we still love and reference.

Even so, I’d like to suggest a parsing of our Generation.  1967-72: X.0. 72-77: X.1. 77-82: X.2 and so on. 82-85? Y.0.

I was talking with my friend Tim, who I’ve known since 1986 or so, about some of these things on Facebook a few days ago.  He had some interesting suggestions for a post about things we experienced that our kids never will. I’ll follow up with more on that in the next few days.  By the way, free knucklesandwiches to anyone who starts calling them Generation Z.  How about Generation More Awesome Than Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, and The Hulk Combined?