Book Report: Stinker Lets Loose

I get to the bottom of the mystery that is Mike Sacks‘ latest book, Stinker Lets Loose. Is it in fact his latest book? Or is Stinker Lets Loose something more. Something more sinister? Or something wonderful? America needs to know.

Mentioned is my attempt at a re-novelization of the novelization of the original Ocean’s 11 movie starring the Rat Pack, Frank, Dino, Sammy, etc. One may find that effort here.

By all means, do check out Mike’s podcast, Doin’ It With Mike Sacks, interviews with comedy cognoscenti as well as original amusements.

Soul Man: Larry Kidwell, 1947-2017

lawrence and the arabians

Larry Kidwell has passed. Larry was the singer/piano player for the legendary D.C. band Lawrence & the Arabians. (That’s him in Jesus pose behind his bandmates, circa 1967.) Before the term blue-eyed soul, he was its embodiment. As Michael Dolan wrote about the band in Washingtonian in 1988, “They were the original soul rebels, white kids who grew up on black music and in turn played black music for other white kids to grow up on.” One of those kids was me.

Larry and the band get their own section in Mark Opsasnick‘s essential book, Capitol Rock, deservedly so. In the era of teen clubs and dances at the fire hall, before there was such a thing as a concert industry and professional music venues outside of classical halls, the band routinely drew 1,500 or more kids every weekend.

Lawrence and the arabians card

Of course, there were no Arabians in the band. As with many band names of the time, it was a play on something current, in this case the film. Yes, it was a more innocent time; please put your comments about “appropriation” aside, especially if you never heard the man sing. The few recordings that Larry and the band made don’t really do him justice. As with so much music, you really have to hear it live.

Larry generously gifted me with the original photo of the band after I interviewed him for City Paper. He wrote on the back:

“If this picture means anything good to you, please keep it that it would give me pleasure, too.”

Larry, this picture means the world to me. And I hope I thanked you enough.

Condolences to his family. This town lost a bit of its soul.

I Read a Book!

A tribute to the late, great Chuck Barris, who — in addition to creating The Dating Game, The Newlywed Game, and most importantly The Gong Show — wrote one of the great works of American literature, his “authorized autobiography,” Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.

So much of my life was spent watching The Gong Show. Farewell, Chuck. You will be missed.

The Problem With Regulations

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

At the Women’s March, Jan. 21, 2017

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…)

R.I.P., Mickey Toperzer

(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.

mickey toperzer

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

Bullshit Watch: Real Estate Edition

If you lived here, you'd be stuck in traffic still

If you lived here, you’d be stuck in traffic still

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/)

The Wonder of It All

batman v superman2

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.

batman v superman

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.