So the current zeitgeist has caused even me to descend to the depths of politics. Here, I explain the problem with the debate over regulations, which is that ugly word “regulations.” In fact, government regulations are meant to safeguard and protect the public. So, instead of bemoaning having to follow instructions, be thankful that your safety is a concern of our elected officials. Well, some of them. #resist
I went to the Women’s March in Washington, DC, and was quickly separated from my wife and party and spent two house standing shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers. While I never heard nor saw the speeches, there was plenty of activity among the thousands jammed onto the National Mall.
I decided to only bring my Canon PowerShot A590 point-and-shoot and Zoom H1 audio recorder with me, both of which fit into one jacket pocket. They proved up to the task of capturing a few of the magic moments from this historic day.
And is Youtube being sexist by choosing a man for the video’s thumbnail image? I could change it, but it’s a dramatic shot of a colorful fella. (I guess I’m still part of the problem…)
(NOTE: Reposting this by request. The original post, itself a repost from a Washington City Paper piece I wrote in 1994, got lost in the Great WordPress Upgrade Disaster of ’13)
Frank “Mickey” Toperzer passed away on Oct. 12. He was the owner of Drums Unlimited on St. Elmo Avenue in Bethesda, when Bethesda was a place where you could open a small shop selling only drums.
Below is the article I wrote about him for Washington City Paper, almost 20 years ago. I was still fairly new at the journalism game and I started the interview with some question that did not meet Mickey’s approval. “Stop. Turn of the recorder,” he said sternly. Startled, I did as he ordered. He then informed me that my question was so foolishly broad and uninformed that it was impossible to answer and that it would only make me seem foolish. Then he told me the question I was really trying to ask and we started again.
I’ve been told that Mickey kept a copy of the article in his shop, framed a bit sideways–because he felt it would catch people’s eyes better if it was off-kilter and then they’d stop and read it. A perfect example of how how Mickey’s mind worked.
The reason I wrote the article is that I worked at Drums Unlimited right after high school and knew Mickey to be an entertaining raconteur, among other things. It was a great experience and Mickey taught me many lessons that I didn’t know I was learning until years later.
Drums Unlimited made much of its money renting equipment, any and everything for a band, school, and orchestra. For a symphony gig at the Kennedy Center, the store came up short for seats. So Mickey gave me the keys to his house and told me to grab the bar stools from the basement. And I was also to pack up his son’s drum set. He’d rented that, too.
When Burt Bacharach was playing the Kennedy Center, his drummer complained that the cymbal stand he’d rented from Drums Unlimited wasn’t tall enough. Highly annoyed by this affront to common sense, Mickey cobbled together a frankenstand that was probably 12 feet tall. I got in the van and drove it down to the KenCen. Because I was a clueless teen with no perspective, I just burst into the rehearsal room, interrupting the musicians, and walked the ridiculous piece of hardware right to the drummer. There were some laughs and a confused, then stern look from Burt. I don’t know who the drummer was–he could have been one of the Wrecking Crew who played on many of the original Bacharach-David songs. I hope I didn’t get him fired.
Much of my time was spent delivering equipment to and picking it up from the newly-opened Kennedy Center. In fact, Drums Unlimited rented several tympani and a large bass drum to the National Symphony for Leonard Bernstein‘s “Mass,” which officially opened the Center. Even though Jackie Kennedy was just one floor above me, I remember being annoyed that the ovation went on and on and on, making me wait so long to pick up the gear.
That was the real treat of the job — wandering around the still half-completed building, underneath the public spaces. One day I poked through a door and found myself standing on the stage in the empty Opera House. I took in the grandeur, took a bow, and snuck out quickly.
In exchange for the keys to the van, I had to wear overalls with a Drums Unlimited logo. One day after a delivery I was heading to the vending machines by the dressing rooms when I spotted a tall man with long but well-coiffed hair who was wearing platform shoes and carrying a purse. Well, it looked like a purse. It was probably a standard messenger bag, but in the early 1970s guys did not carry bags, nor wear platform shoes. At least none of my high school pals did.
But, because I watched The Tonight Show religiously, I recognized Robert Klein, who was appearing in a play. As he passed, I smartly called out, “Robert Klein.” He gave me and my overalls a snooty once-over and replied, “Drums Unlimited,” and continued on his way. I never much cared for him after that.
Also, when I tried to score points by bragging to my friends that I had seen Robert Klein, nobody knew who he was. Rubes.
Then there was the time I was hauling a couple of tympani drums back to the van, I got snagged trying to lug one down the stairs, tripped, and fell head-over-tympani. Bang, crash, boom, indeed.
Another time, I peeled out from the light at Wisconsin and Bradley on my way to the KenCen. At the next light, a driver frantically caught my attention — the 28-inch bass drum had fallen out the unlocked back door and rolled down the road.
I believe I was making $1.35 an hour — minimum wage at the time. After a while, tired of Mickey calling me at home at night to give me instructions on where I had to be the next morning, I asked for a raise — to $1.65 an hour. I was promptly told that my services were no longer required.
Bang the Drum Profitably
It’s been 32 years since Frank “Mickey” Topics hung the small sign over the door of his shop on St. Elmo Avenue in Bethesda. For any business to last three decades is a feat; it’s especially remarkable for one with as narrow a product line as Toperzer’s. The blue-on-white letters on his modest marquee read “Drums Unlimited.”
Perhaps the “Unlimited” part of the sign explains it best. The wee retail store is but the tip of the drumstick in an almost sprawling empire that includes a rehearsal space, a mail order and instrument manufacturing business, and a musical-equipment rental service.
All of which arose from the typical drummer’s complaint; having to lug carloads of equipment for the same paycheck as a less-burdened flute or guitar player. “I’m a musician, not a truck driver,” Toperzer scoffs.
In the ’50s, Toperzer was one of the busiest drummers in town, working hotel one-nighters with dance bands and orchestras nearly every evening—this after putting in a full shift as a public-school music teacher. The grind took a toll. “I don’t show up three hours early and leave three hours late for the same money as somebody who walks in with a fiddle, or a piano player who walks in with nothing,” declares the drummer, a trace of aggravation in his voice even now.
So Toperzer had the audacity to demand that promoters not only pay him for showing up, but shell out an additional rental fee for his station wagon full of gear. Surprisingly, it worked—to the point where Toperzer was soon contracting out equipment for other musicians. He quickly found himself with a house full of musical tools and a burgeoning rental business. He opened the retail shop partly to store his clattering collection. Eventually, he quit teaching, believing that he could have more impact providing materials to educators than teaching tots where the one-beat is.
Still, Toperzer retains something of a professorial air. Offering advice, criticism, support, and strong opinion in his lilting Boston brogue, he clearly enjoys engaging all who enter his store in hardy debate—and not merely about percussion. You may think you just stopped in to pick up a new pair of drumsticks, but if he senses you’re a bright student, Toperzer will hit you with a pop quiz. (Example: What’s the difference between a piano and an organ? You play a piano, you operate an organ.)
As philosophical as Toperzer can become, he is surprisingly dispassionate when discussing the mainstay of his business. “A drum is a drum is a drum,” he says with indifference. “It goes boom boom. If it doesn’t, you’re in trouble. If it does and you can’t play it, you’re in trouble. Otherwise, it goes boom boom boom.”
Of course, Toperzer is not entirely without sentiment. He points out an old red bass drum. “I bought that for $5 in 1945. At that time, it was about 40 years old. It was built by George Stone,” he says. Stone is one of the seminal figures in modern percussion, a drum maker and teacher whose books are still in use. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful drum,” he says affectionately. “The drum next to it is almost 100 years old,” he continues, indicating a scruffy wooden bass drum. “And they’re still working. I got my five bucks back a couple of times.”
Toperzer speculates that his old-time beater might have been used in John Philip Sousa’s band. “And of course that music is still played and that drum sounds like the drum should sound.”
Toperzer dispenses these heresies and verities from the Kensington warehouse/headquarters of Rehearsal Spaces and Professional Rental Services, the Drums Unlimited subsidiary run by his son, Michael. Conversation vies with the constant sound of musical instruments being tested and loaded onto one of five trucks that deliver them to such disparate places as Georgia theme parks, Atlantic City casinos, and the stages of Wolf Trap and the Kennedy Center. The clanging concerto of chimes, drums, bass, piano, and electric drills and sanders provides a suitably percussive background.
But we don’t spend much time talking the usual drum talk—Buddy vs. Gene, Ludwig vs. Yamaha, blah blah blah. We talk of history, discipline, and the cycles of nature. In explaining the complexities of sending musical instruments around the world, Toperzer mentions the half-dozen sets of tuned automobile horns that he supplies to orchestras intent on correctly playing Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.”
But to fully explain how one tunes automobile horns, Toperzer must first go back to the 1890s and the celeste, which, he points out, did not exist until Tchaikovsky heard it in his head and thought it might be nice for “The Nutcracker Suite.” “Somebody had to invent what he heard,” Toperzer says, beginning a story about the composer traveling to France to find a man who could build his imaginary device. “George Gershwin heard these taxi horns in Paris and found a guy in Germany who made things like foghorns and sirens.” He pauses slightly, knowing he has a good punch line. “And that man still makes them,” he says, before adding with a grin: “He’s hard to find.”
Not content to pick up the usual catalogs and order the usual soundmaking machinery, Toperzer acquired some of his inventory by roaming through Europe “finding lots of these fellows”—ancient artisans including “the man who tunes cowbells. And the man who makes the cowbells that the other man tunes,” he says. “The cowbells are made on an island in Bavaria. And a man 200 miles away goes to this island and goes through bins of these Swiss cowbells, and finds things that are close to a note. And he collects these and he puts them in his van and he goes back to Germany. And they have a little shop there and stroboscopes, and they bring these into tune by cutting them and reshaping them and so forth and so on.”
Simple. But Toperzer’s Indiana Jones-style adventures cover the percussive gamut. Though the more reliable plastic drum head has been the norm since the late ’50s, there are, says Toperzer, “purists out there who want calfskin or goatskin or monkey skin or snakeskin—or sturgeon skin even, which the Egyptians use—on different kinds of ethnic drums. And so we’ve had to find sources for these things.”
“It’s not just a primitive catch-as-catch-can,” he asserts, maintaining that there is a skill and an art to both the making
and the buying of musical exotica. He adds, almost sadly, “I never did find a safe source for fish skin that wasn’t rotten.”
In an age of digital sampling, where anybody can be an “artist” with the push of a button, this sort of insistence upon authenticity is refreshing. It also goes a long way toward explaining why that small sign in Bethesda is still beckoning after all these years. Another example: When Modern Drummer magazine published a list of “The 25 Best Drum Books,” all 25 could be found on Toperzer’s shelves, a fact the former educator is proud to announce.
These days, the globe-trotting is left mostly to his inventory. And as he has backed up the likes of Billy Eckstine, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Peggy Lee, and Julie Andrews, you won’t find this sixtysomething stickman pounding out a fox trot at some wedding. But the lure of the traps remains.
Toperzer mentions a recent party where he ascended to the drum throne. “A number of wonderful players were there,” he says, including Ray Bryant and bassist Keter Betts. His face brightens as he remembers the fun. “Except Keter and I were exhausted. There were three piano players. They each played an hour nonstop, showing everything they could do. And we played for all of them.” He laughs softy. “That kind of thing is wonderful for me.”
Of course, he still had to set up all those drums himself. —DAVE NUTTYCOMBE
From Washington City Paper, Sept. 23, 1994
I am fascinated by this song: Doctor Jesus, recorded by Ken Mellons; written by Tony Stampley and Justin Bolin.
And this version:
And this might be my favorite:
If you’ve been to Wheaton Plaza lately (excuse me, Westfields Wheaton), you might have noticed a small construction site. The sign out front boldly proclaims this new development as “Kensington Overlook.” The overlook part is definitely correct, as the couple rows of townhouses overlook Kensington by a good mile or more, that town being actually located so far down University Boulevard as to be invisible.
Yet, the builder’s website declares in no uncertain terms that Kensington Overlook is “a sophisticated enclave featuring 25 new townhomes…located just 4 miles north of D.C. in Kensington, MD.”
Very little is correct about that. This “sophisticated enclave” is literally a tiny triangle of scrub land at the entrance to a large shopping mall. Your backyard is the parking lot for Target, across the two-lane entranceway is the Giant grocery story, and your front yard is a busy six-lane commuter road. Of course, all builders use the word “luxury” to describe what are the usual stick-built structures, with Tyvek-thin walls and a facade of inch-thick brick or stone-like substance.
Montgomery County’s approved planning document [PDF] places this enclave squarely within the Wheaton Sector Plan. So, yeah, you can walk to Costco. And the Metro. That’s good “smart growth.” But put on your most comfortable hiking boots for the long, exhaust-filled trek to Kensington.
Of course, whoever buys these sad dwellings will probably overlook that.
For those who don’t care to read, here’s a video version:
(To be fair, real estate developers have been attaching fanciful names to their projects forever. In the real estate boom of the 1980s, Regardies, a business magazine which closely chronicled the industry’s movers and shakers, published a wheel that you could cut out and use to automate the naming process. Along one axis were words like “Orchard,” Forest,” “View,” etc.; another offered lofty-sounding, often British-inspired words to match, such as “Warwick,” “Manchester,” “Heights,” and, well, Kensington. Never mattered if there ever was an orchard or a view. One may do this now online, here: http://lewenberg.com/sng/)
Firstly, this is not an anti-Wonder Woman rant. I like Wonder Woman just fine. Nor an anti-feminist rant. “I’m With Her,” and all that. Oh, it is a rant, to be sure. A rant about bullshit marketing. Which, I know, too easy, but still…
As the picture above indicates, this is a rant about the movie Batman v Superman, which I am on record here as despising. As crass and inhuman as that film is, not surprisingly, so, too, is the marketing a cynical ploy. Which, again, a redundant and easy complaint about marketing, but fight we must.
My ire is raised because for some reason Wonder Woman is given front-and-center position on the Blu-ray and on the store rack. Remember, the movie is titled (foolishly) Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, not Wonder Woman and Batman and Superman: Some Kind of Insane Three-Way. Of course, that movie I would watch, at least for a while. Wonder Woman, portrayed with universally-praised panache by Gal Gadot, was only in the two-and-a-half hour slogfest for a total of seven minutes. Seven minutes! A credit to the actress that she can command such reviews from so little screen time. And a discredit to the rest of the film that a bit player can steal the show, which remember features two of the most iconic characters in the history of the world.
The reason Wonder Woman was in the film, and the only reason she is heavily featured on all the packaging and posters, is that Warner Bros. is also making a Wonder Woman film. Probably several. It’s cross-promotion, don’t you know.
But it’s so blatant, so in-your-face, so shameless, that it just defeats its own purpose. What the campaign is saying is, “Hey, you didn’t really like this movie, but you did like this one character, so here you go, she’s in the movie, remember? Please buy this disc because there might be more of her on the DVD extras.”
Sticking your IP into everything just because you can is a filthy business.
If this is your best play, Warner Bros., why not go all the way. Warners is also making another Ben Affleck film, The Accountant. Let’s add Wonder Woman to that. Here’s the synopsis, wherein Affleck plays
“a math savant with more affinity for numbers than people. Behind the cover of a small-town CPA office, he works as a freelance accountant for some of the world’s most dangerous criminal organizations. With the Treasury Department’s Crime Enforcement Division, run by Ray King (J.K. Simmons), starting to close in, Christian takes on a legitimate client: a state-of-the-art robotics company where an accounting clerk (Anna Kendrick) has discovered a discrepancy involving millions of dollars. But as Christian uncooks the books and gets closer to the truth, it is the body count that starts to rise.”
Could probably use Diana Prince and her invisible plane, right?
But why stop there? Let’s add Wonder Woman (or Batman, or Superman, or the Flash, or…) to other upcoming Warner Bros. features!
Warners is making a new Tomb Raider. Another Scooby Doo. Another Jungle Book. Another King Kong movie, Kong: Skull Island. Yet another Godzilla movie, and a King Kong vs Godzilla movie!
Wonder Woman vs. Lara Croft on Skull Island: Dawn of Mowgli. A Scooby Doo Adventure!
Jeez. I take it all back. Warner Bros. should just stop making movies.
The story goes that in the ’90s a TV reporter in Los Angeles took to the street and asked random people, “How’s your screenplay going?” And almost everyone was ready with the answer that, yes, their screenplays were going just fine, thank you.
Today, of course, the question would be, “How’s your podcast going?”
One of the latest to jump onto the podwagon is Mike Sacks, host of Doin’ It With Mike Sacks. Despite the title, this is not a smarmy guide to the porn industry. While there is occasional smarm and even some light smuttiness, Doin’ It is at heart something of a literary variety show for the ears. Which is as it should be, as Sacks is himself an author, of two indispensable volumes of interviews with comedy writers, And Here’s the Kicker and Poking a Dead Frog, as well as the extremely witty collection of original humor, Your Wildest Dreams, Within Reason. (My review of the latter is here.)
And so Sacks brings an authorial seriousness to the task of hosting, with a dry, low-key delivery, reminiscent of Jean Shepherd or maybe Jack Paar. But seriousness is not really on the menu. Instead, Sacks, a former college DJ, offers a pastiche of found-sound oddities and music from his collection and scripted comedy interludes. Some of the interludes are taken from Your Wildest Dreams, others are original for the podcast. (Like the series Gettin’ In Touch With Old Girlfriends, and the horrifyingly vivid NPR Fan Fiction, which totally should become a thing — or more of a thing, or maybe stop being a thing.) I’m guessing one impulse to start a podcast was to give audio voice to some of his written bits. (Who reads anymore?) It’s adult conversation, with a bit of childish foolishness.
But the crux of each episode is an interview with a notable from the comedy world. Guests so far have included Bill Hader, sitcom writer and author of Science…For Her! Megan Amram, Dan Powell, executive producer of Inside Amy Schumer, Beth Newell of Reductress, and Neal Pollack. Sacks even interviewed his own agent, who is also the agent for the infamous Twitter joke thief @FatJew. (To his credit, more or less, the agent stands by his client, more or less.)
All of the interviews are both casual and insightful. As in his books, Sacks draws out his subjects on the finer details of crafting comedy. Especially fascinating is Sacks’ lengthy interview with David Sedaris, which seems almost like we’re eavesdropping — partly because the audio sounds like it was recorded surreptitiously. But that doesn’t matter. As Sacks likes to bring advice to aspiring humor writers, here’s some advice for future podcasters, based on Sacks’ show: don’t worry about sound and gear. Much of Doin’ It is phone conversations, and some of the connections are downright lousy. Even Sacks’ intros feature a plethora of plosives, generally anathema in professional broadcasting. But as always, content in king. That Bill Hader had low bars for his chat doesn’t matter; he said interesting things.
Sacks grew up in Montgomery County and, as in his written humor, local listeners will find many shouts-outs on the podcast: Hammerjacks, Hagerstown, and Rockville, Md., among them. I suspect some character names may be personal friends.
So subscribe on iTunes, like him on Facebook, hashtag on Instagram, whatever the hell one does nowadays. But do tune in because Doin’ It With Mike Sacks is a great way to get through the week.
Eric Brace & Peter Cooper
Red Beet Records
Hometown tunes from the 1970s and ’80s are the unifying theme of Eric Brace and Peter Cooper‘s heartfelt and nostalgic new album, C&O Canal. A love letter to the musicians who inspired the D.C.-raised duo, C&O Canal is a set of cover tunes penned the likes of the Seldom Scene‘s John Starling, Emmylou Harris, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Joe Triplett, Karl Straub, and more; it’s an ode to a particularly fecund era for the local music scene.
The liner notes connect the many dots tying these D.C.-area musicians together, and hearing the songs filtered through the mesmerizing harmonies of Brace’s mournful baritone and Cooper’s high-lonesome tenor reveals the depth of craftsmanship and artistry this area has produced. “Washington history is as rich with genius-level roots music as it is tricky politics,” Brace writes, correctly. The album is dedicated to, among lots of inspirations, many of the D.C. clubs that hosted live music every week: The Birchmere where the Scene had its residency for so many years, Bethesda’s Red Fox Inn, where Emmylou started (pictured; I played there, too!), Gallagher‘s on Connecticut Ave., where Carpenter hosted an open mic (pretty sure I played there in the late ’60s when it was called Sam’s Place), the fabled Cellar Door (so many nights there; so much magic).
Almost every week in the ’70s, you could hear the Rossyln Mountain Boys‘ Joe Triplett sing his lament, “Been Awhile.” B&C bring it back with just enough reverence, while putting their own stamp on the song.
Likewise, if Cooper’s plaintive version of “Boulder to Birmingham” won’t make you forget either Emmylou’s definitive original or the nearly-definitive version by co-writer Bill Danoff‘s Starland Vocal Band, he acquits himself well.
I’d somehow missed Carpenter’s “John Wilkes Booth,” and so thought at first that the song was taken from some 1870s tract. But this recitation of historical perfidy manages to be both haunting and jaunty. Jauntily haunting? Is that a thing? On this album, yes.
From the opening title track, John Starling’s “C&O Canal,” B&C establish a consistent tone and mood, a celebration not only of this particular town, but of honest music made by and about real people. In this age of individual downloads, C&O Canal is one of those too-rare releases that work as a unified whole. The result is a listening experience to be savored at length, even on shuffle-repeat.
Brace and Cooper bring their Americana goodness to Jammin Java on Friday, June 3, for the official record release party.
The best job I ever had, certainly the best job title, was Filler Editor for the Unicorn Times. Whenever an ad fell out, which was often — and often on deadline — I was tasked with filling the space. Which I gleefully did with the help of some spiffy clip art and the photo archives of ’70s rock bands.
The Unicorn Times was a monthly arts and entertainment tabloid that published from the early 1970s into the early 1980s, when the much better organized Washington City Paper came to town and finally squeezed it out of business. Unicorn was the brainchild of a jovial Irishman who started the paper largely as a way to get free drinks. In exchange, he offered to print the entertainment schedule of various nightclubs and when he had enough bars lined up, voila, a newspaper.
Unicorn grew into much more than that, launching some actual journalists. I never wrote for the paper. I was nominally the production manager, in charge of pasting up the ads, though I also delivered the papers once they came back from the printer in West Virginia. (Once, I got to deliver the “boards” as they were called to Morgantown, which was an exciting day trip.)
Many of the fake ads were blatant come-ons for ridiculous products and included what I thought was the obvious gag of demanding money for a “free” catalog. And the address was always my father’s post office box: Box 602, Rockville, Md. Dad was a traveling salesman and I guess he thought he needed a PO Box as the mark of a serious businessman. I was fascinated by the idea and used it as my address for the comic books I subscribed to.
Some of my jokes were apparently too subtle. I created a fake record company whose entire catalog was devoted to songs of the humpback whales, which was a thing at the time. Such supposedly spurious titles as Reggae Songs of the Humpback Whales, featuring Bob Marley and John Denver did not seem at all insane to the Library of Congress, a representative of which wrote a letter asking that I send over my catalog.
The above filler ad is but one example of my publishing outrage recently unearthed from the Nuttycombe Archives. The rest are on my Tumblr site. Enjoy.