June 2008 Archives



I just spent the last four days at Portland Ukefest 2008. I had an absolutely great time, and learned a lot about everything from strumming techniques to diminished chords to George Formby’s career, although now my fingertips all hurt and I never want to hear anything that goes “plink” ever again.

A few observations:

*I went into the week thinking of ukulele as something I played mostly to accompany my singing. I came out of it wanting to play much, much better. And to memorize more songs—I felt like a bit of a dope relying on sheet music as much as I do.

*I was one of the three or four youngest students there. Being one of the youngest people anywhere is pretty unusual for me these days. It was kind of fun, though. I also love being around enthusiastic people, and the older uke players, even the hobbyists, are hardcore about it.

*There is a cultural chasm between people who pronounce “ukulele” yoo-koo-lay-lee and people who pronounce it oo-koo-leh-leh, roughly corresponding to the divide between people who prefer “fun” and people who prefer “authenticity.”

*On Reed’s campus at the same time: a deaconess convention. Sadly, the two groups didn’t mingle much, aside from one lunchtime when the cafeteria was closed thanks to what we were informed was only a tiny little outbreak of Black Plague, nothing to be alarmed about. I don’t think an exchange of ’20s novelty songs for foot-washing would’ve worked out that well anyway.

*I missed, and regret missing, the first of the two faculty concerts, held the last two nights. The second was excellent: many, many excellent musicians and performers, often sitting in with each other. My favorite was probably Del Rey, who plays mostly blues-based stuff, and taught a few classes on playing by ear—here’s a clip of her playing uke. Her set included a calypso that I suspect was originally an answer record to Lord Kitchener’s “Bebop Calypso”—I really need to find out what it was! [Edited to add: it’s Young Tiger’s “Calypso Be.”]

*Although my personal highlight was getting to be one of Jim Beloff’s backup singer/dancers (!) for his ukulele version of the O’Jays’ “Love Train.” One of the other students in his “Have a Nice Uke” class (’70s songs: Seals & Crofts, Orleans, the Carpenters…) had studied choreography with Motown’s choreographer Cholly Atkins, and before we knew it we were the Pips.

*Two performers at the concert made jokes about the Sex Pistols, which I think means I’m going to have to come up with a convincing uke arrangement of one of their songs. I think I could work out a fun version of “No Feelings” loosely modeled on Bananarama’s.

*Which reminds me that, as I also found, I was one of maybe three or four people at Ukefest whose main area of musical interest is post-1970. At open-mic night, I sang the Magnetic Fields’ “The Nun’s Litany,” which got some kind comments but was in some ways a category error to perform in front of that crowd. (Also considered the Velvet Underground’s “Candy Says,” and was happy I hadn’t done that instead when another student did an excellent “I’ll Be Your Mirror.”)

*Reed College dining hall staff: I’m sorry, but somebody needs to teach you how to cook asparagus.

on not changing


I’m happy to note that the paperback edition of Reading Comics is out now! (And that if you’re thinking of buying it online, if you buy it through the Amazon ad in the sidebar I get a little cut of the proceeds.)

I was in NYC this weekend for the MoCCA festival, and saw that Fly Ashtray were playing at Cake Shop. I love them—I’ve put out a few of their records, and will be releasing an EP by them soon—and, as I headed into Cake Shop to see them play, I realized I’ve been seeing them play for 16 years now. (They’ve actually been around in one form or another for more like 25 years.) Anyway, they were terrific as always: a lot of new songs, a few really old ones.

And while I was at the show, I ran into my friend Liz, who I met back iin the early ’90s too and hadn’t seen in many years, and who looked about the happiest I’ve ever seen her. We talked for a few minutes; she said “Man! Who’d have thought that of all people you wouldn’t have changed a bit?” I’m not sure how to take that—I still don’t know if it’s a compliment or a dis. Or value-neutral.

Then, at MoCCA, I saw my friend Anne, who had discovered that her friend Liz—a different Liz—knows the amazing Liza Johnson. “Yeah, I first met Douglas almost 25 years ago,” Anne reported that Liza had said, “and I have to say: that guy totally hasn’t changed at all.”


a quick heads-up


I’ll be speaking on a panel tomorrow afternoon at 3 at NYU’s Cantor Film Center, as part of the MoCCA Festival’s Post-Bang: Comics Ten Minutes After the Big Bang conference. It’s called “Comics and the Literary Establishment,” and also features the excellent Jeet Heer, David Hajdu and Hillary Chute. I suspect it’s going to be mighty fun.

And the paperback edition of Reading Comics is out this week!