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Alma Material: Top 5 Regrets, University Division

Joni Mitchell performs at Wesleyan’s McConaughy Hall, in 1969.

With my son out of school almost two years now and my daughter set to graduate in May (we wrote our final college check in January!), I see the need to balance this pending financial boon with the prospect of psychic loss. Yes, opportunities for nostalgic reflection — on my own university experience — will soon be greatly reduced, or markedly detached from anyone who gives a shit. (I don’t think my wife ever did; she’s from the Midwest where, apparently, people stop talking about where they went to college, outside the football context, pretty soon after graduation.) My kids give one meager level of shit because they’re attending (or did) on my dime. And honestly, I don’t care that they’re mainly just humoring me. It’s enough. Because one cannot talk to one’s spawn about their classes, parties, relationship dramas or whatnot without summoning one’s own such memories.

Which brings me to the college memories one seems to summon (especially New Englanders) more than most in middle age: regrets. Yes, I have a few — but here are the Top 5:

I regret not having walked the measly half-mile across campus that spring of my freshman year to see The Replacements, who played McConaughey Hall, the dining facility we called MoCon, in March of 1983. As you may well know, The Replacements have since developed one of the most rabid, enduring cult followings in the history of rock ‘n roll (see here a pretty good documentary on the subject, available via Amazon Prime). And while none of us knew who they were back in 1983, it wouldn’t have killed us to show up. It wasn’t as if bands played Wes that frequently, much less decent ones (Graham Parker was the best we could do from 1982-86; lowlights included the send-up band Blotto). Later, my housemate Dave Rose in particular grew to love The Replacements with the heat of a thousand suns. I quite like them (especially the album Tim) but to have been there at MoCon that night would have represented some primo post-punk cred to have claimed all these years later… I should funnel two more things into this single music-related regret: 1) the fact that, for the entirety of my college sojourn, I failed to pick up a guitar and learn how to play it. This I would eventually do, at 40, but had I done what any self-respecting collegiate male might have done, I’d be a way better player by now; and 2) MoCon itself was torn down in 2010, but not before having hosted the likes of Joni Mitchell, Steppenwolf, Miles Davis, Gloria Steinem and Martin Luther King Jr. MoCon was the locus of so many memories (and regrets), I could write an entire column on that subject alone, so enormous was the impact of this spaceship-inspired structure on my early college life. But I’ll spare you that, dear reader. For now.

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I regret that my senior housemates and I did not follow through on our bright idea to create a time capsule using the husk of my 1978 Dodge Omni. Rather than consign it to some scrap heap, my parents had ceded this charmless vehicle to me for my final semester in Middletown. It burned a quart of oil for every $10 of gas and the ball joint connecting the clutch cable to the (clutch) pedal kept slipping out of place, which required me to lay upside-down in the driver’s seat — head and hands down by the gas & brake — in order to coax the ball back down the slot into place. The Omni nearly expired several times that spring. And so one night, very late, we hit upon a fabulously practical and sentimental notion: As we were about to move out of our off-campus house into the real world, we were obliged to wrestle with the not-insignificant matter of what to do with all the shit the five of us had accrued there at 8 Warren Street — not just over the course of our senior year but the previous three years, as well. Here was our brilliant plan: drain all fluids from the Omni; dig an appropriately sized hole in the field across the street, beyond the hockey rink and athletic fields where the soccer team practiced; buy a keg (most of our plans back then involved a keg) and throw a killer party whereby everyone brought something to store inside this would-be, once internally combustive time capsule. After filling the Omni with all these mementos, we would set about finishing the keg before rolling the car (or tipping it over) into the hole, whereupon we’d bury it. Eventually, we reckoned, we’d come back to some reunion and excavate — yet another great party (and keg) opportunity would surely ensue. Alas, we never motivated on this front and it’s a real shame because some years later Wesleyan built a palatial athletic complex around the old hockey rink and completely upgraded the old practice fields. In the course of these construction projects, the Omni would surely have been discovered at some point — and we’d have all been famous.

Our ’78 Dodge Omni was silver, with red pleather interior. Some credit this model, not the K-car, with saving Chrysler. I find this hard to believe…
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Professor Nat Greene: Come on Down!

The inimitable Bob Barker, flanked by “Price is Right” eye candy Janice Pennington (left) and Anitra Ford.

As yours probably does, my alma mater hits me all too frequently with some manner of e-newsletter cum fund-raising communiqué. One can hardly escape the memories stirred/jarred by all this WesContact, which is surely the way they want it. In any case, a recent MailChimp morsel revealed, among other things, that three Wesleyan faculty had received The Binswanger Prize for Excellence in Teaching. While this particular tidbit proved interesting enough to peruse, I’m only now addressing the nostalgia it prompted — immersed as I am, third party, in the college experience of both my kids.

The first thing to say is that my cohort and I attended Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., alongside an actual Binswanger — Benjamin Pennypacker Binswanger to be exact. Never knew him but my housemates and I made note of his titanically pretentious name the first week of school freshman year and never forgot it — never tired of mocking it, either. Always wondered if he was related to Princeton’s Jay Binswanger, winner of the first Heisman Trophy…

Wesleyan Professor Nat Greene

More to the point, Nat Greene was one of these recent Binswanger honorees. I took a couple classes with him at Wes but the first was a survey of European history 1815-1945, and I remember it best because it was the only class I ever took with my housemate Dennis Carboni, an art history major whose course load never again overlapped with mine (classical history/modern American lit).

Greene didn’t necessarily tilt the material toward “social” history, an approach then sweeping uber-liberal bastions like Wesleyan. His hewed more to the traditional “Great Men, Great Events” approach. I remember the syllabus included a book of his own scholarship, “From Versailles to Vichy: The Third French Republic, 1919–1940”, which a) struck me at the time as being pretty awesome, that this guy was teaching from his own work; and b) still resides in a bookcase somewhere here in my house, for reasons completely bewildering to my wife. An entertaining lecturer and no-nonsense grader of essays (all testing was conducted via manic, long-hand scribbling in those little blue booklets), Greene was a fine professor — the sort I hope Silas and Clara will experience at some point in their academic careers.

But here’s what I remember most from my class with Nat Greene: It ran from 10 to 10:50 on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings in the old PAC building (a few steps from the manhole where we often plunged down into Wesleyan’s famous tunnel system, the subject of another remembrance perhaps). If Dennis and I didn’t dawdle after class, we could race home to my off-campus apartment and catch The Price Is Right at 11 a.m.

Yes, The Price Is Right. It became a sort of ironic obsession for me but something more than that for Dennis, as many things did. It gave me great pleasure to watch him obsessively game this once-seminal game show.

I’m not sure that college kids go in for this sort of thing today, awash as they are in video content and on-demand entertainment delivery choices. However, during the early 1980s, TV was a sort of novel diversion for college kids. We had grown up with it, of course, but had virtually no access to it at school. And so, great delight was taken in the ironic devotion to retrograde programming like soap operas in dorm lounges and late-night reruns of shows like the Rockford Files and Star Trek — things we would never bother watching when home with our families. My sophomore year, my housemate and I came by a tiny black-and-white TV that I’m pretty sure we carried with us the next three years, to three different houses, deploying along the way a staggering array of make-shift aerials including one that involved a pumpkin wrapped in tin foil.

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Bowie’s Impact, Departure Still Sinking In

Bowie’s Impact, Departure Still Sinking In

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As was the case with many artists of the 1970s, David Bowie was introduced to me via my older sister. Janet brought home Hunky Dory at some point late in the Nixon Administration and when she wasn’t playing it to death, I played it to death. In truth I hardly ever bothered with Side 2 because that’s how my primitive musical mind operated at the time. Side 1 had everything I thought I needed: the radio song, “Changes”; a screamer that Janet and I used to goof on together during car trips (“Oh, You Pretty Things”); and my favorite track, the always haunting and beautiful “Life on Mars”. Once I got to college and lived in close quarters with a more fully developed Bowie enthusiast/savant, Dennis Carboni, I would learn that Side 2 wasn’t just superb (“Song for Bob Dylan”, “Andy Warhol”) but indicative of Bowie’s new genre-busting album and persona to come.

[I wouldn’t dream of posting anything regarding Bowie without Dennis’ input. His annotative comments appear below, bolded and bracketed.]

It’s been more than a year since Dennis and I spoke of this and many other things the Tuesday following Bowie’s death, in January 2016. He confirmed what I remember us discussing all those years ago, in the wee hours, confined only by the sterile cinderblock walls of dorm life — namely, that Bowie wasn’t just consistently 2-3 years ahead of every other rock ‘n’ roll artist in terms of musical direction and fashion sense; he normally hinted at his next departure on the back end (Side 2) of his previous album.

[I like how you wrote, “Dennis and I spoke of this and many other things,” which recalls the lyric, We passed upon the stair, we spoke of was and when — from “The Man Who Sold The World.”]

On the generally ethereal Hunky Dory, that clue was the propulsive and utterly sublime “Queen Bitch”, which heralded the coming of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, one of the great, pure rock (and proto-punk) albums of the decade. To say that Ziggy himself was one of the great “roles” played by any rocker of the period is not necessary, for no one else even attempted this sort of serial shape-shifting back then. Bowie turned this trick 4-5 times throughout the decade (hippie folkster to Ziggy to glam rocker to blue-eyed soul man to Thin White Duke) and competed in this regard only with himself.

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Bowie’s career didn’t begin with Space Oddity in 1969. He’d been around since 1965, when this shot was taken. Pretty mainstream, for the time, and a reminder that these icons we associate with a particular decade didn’t arrive fully formed from the brow of Zeus.

[I’ve been reading the blog, “Pushing Ahead of the Dame.” You may know it, but check it out if you don’t. It’s fascinating. Yes, “Queen Bitch” is perfect because it starts with the acoustic guitar C-G-F progression à la Hunky Dory, then switches right to an electric C-G-F à la Ziggy.]

My sister didn’t own the Ziggy album; indeed, while I knew several cuts well (from FM radio play) I wouldn’t fully absorb it until the early 1980s. She did, however, possess one more Bowie LP: David Live, Bowie’s first official concert release where, once again, he shows us a transition in the making: from the hard-edged glam of Diamond Dogs to the Philly soul sound of Young Americans. I am not ashamed to admit that I love this particular Bowie period, this dalliance in what he later, somewhat ambivalently referred to as “plastic soul”. It does shame me to admit, however, that until I was 12-13 years old, I thought this this dude’s name was David Live. Indeed, he looked and sounded so different from the Hunky Dory-era Bowie, I thought they were two different artists.

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