What Boomers Have Seen

Sitting here on the far side of 60, I find myself musing occasionally about all the events my generation witnessed in real time as they happened. Every generation compiles its own similar list over time, to be sure, but the ebb and flow of history that Boomers witnessed over time was certainly a helluva ride.

Here’s my personal variation of the list. I’d love to see yours.

  • John Kennedy assassinated
  • Beatlemania
  • Muhammad Ali
  • Civil rights movement
  • Vietnam
  • Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinated
  • First human sets foot on the moon
  • Woodstock
  • Nixon resigns
  • Iran hostage crisis
  • Collapse of the Soviet Union
  • The dawn of the digital era and the internet
  • The Great Recession
  • First black U.S. president
  • The Chicago Cubs win the World Series
  • The Donald Trump regime

It hasn’t all been fun but it’s all been amazing to watch unfold. As Dr. Winston O’Boogie once said, “You should have been there.”

The Night David Peel Introduced Me to John and Yoko

In 1972, The Mike Douglas Show was the kitschiest thing on television. Douglas was a second tier Big Band crooner who hosted a live talk show that originated out of Philadelphia, a low budget affair that aired every weekday afternoon from 4:30 to 6:00. For those of us who grew up in that era, it was mainly the background entertainment your mother listened to while she prepared dinner.

Mike DouglasBut for the week of February 14th, The Mike Douglas Show suddenly became the center of the entertainment universe. Part of Douglas’ unique schtick was to feature a different cohost each week, usually an actor who hadn’t made a film in a few years or a comedian who’d just finished a gig somewhere in the Borsht Belt. This week, however, was different. For reasons that no one could even begin to comprehend, Mike Douglas’ cohosts were going to be John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

Mike Douglas was the embodiment of everything that was conventional, comfortable, and patriotic. John Lennon was the most famous radical on the planet, grudgingly tolerated by the cultural cognoscenti but actively despised by the political establishment. It was difficult to envision Douglas and Lennon making even five minutes’ worth of small talk at a party. Imagining the two of them sharing bon mots for ninety minutes every day over the course of a week was basically impossible.

For an insecure, irresolute seventeen year old, the whole thing had an irresistible appeal. Spending a week’s worth of afternoons watching John and Yoko on television seemed infinitely more appealing than wrestling with the incomprehensible social and academic environment that was Columbia University, especially when flunking out ignominiously already seemed like a forgone conclusion. Of course, that seventeen year old was me and that was how I came to be watching The Mike Douglas Show in the common area of my dorm in the middle of a Monday afternoon, smoking a joint and musing about John Lennon.

Smoking a joint in the middle of the afternoon was nothing new for me. I’d begun smoking “grass” during the summer of 1967 with an older cousin. He and I would stroll down Crescent Street in East New York and “smoke a reefer” before returning to his house to listen to music. We’d usually alternate between Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Are You Experienced?, the two most mind boggling releases in a year that was already defined for us by mind boggling music.

I smoked through three years of high school that were marked by a disastrous family situation, paralyzing social anxiety, and a decent level of academic achievement in the midst of it all. My first two years of high school were spent in a Catholic military boarding school. With the Vietnam War raging on in the daily headlines, my disdain for the military trappings became overwhelming. I had the second highest GPA in my class but when I began circulating a petition that called for transforming our vaunted ROTC Honor School into a co-ed non-military prep school, the Commandant of Cadets (Brother James, a short, laconic man and a member of the Christian Brothers who was known among cadets as “The Rat”) coolly informed me that I’d be summarily and permanently sent home if I persisted.

Most afternoons, a select few of us would convene on the edge of the campus on a small beach area that peered out onto Long Island’s Great South Bay to smoke a joint or two and muse about how fucked-up life and school were. Sufficiently stoned to negotiate the rest of the evening, we’d return to the residential hall where I’d kill time by playing the guitar and singing. My repertoire included Alice’s Restaurant (yes, I’d play the whole thing!) and I Like Marijuana, a classic anthem by David Peel and the Lower East Side. David Peel was a New York City street musician, not a big star but to counter-culture types in high school who smoked pot—my particular demographic at the time—he was a real hero. He unapologetically shouted on vinyl all those things we weren’t even able to whisper at home or at school.

After two years, I’d had enough of military school and lobbied my mother to let me move back home in order to spend the remainder of high school in public school. I wanted to grow my hair out (ironic for those of you who know me now), wear regular clothes, and sit in class with… girls! She relented and I began my junior year at the local high school, an experiment that failed in almost every way possible. I continued to do well academically but living with my mother made me nostalgic for the relative emotional warmth of marching with rifles and undergoing locker inspections. My good grades notwithstanding, I hated everything about my life and needed to make a change.

I visited  my guidance counselor one afternoon and told her that there weren’t any circumstances under which I was going to return to school in September. When it became clear that she wasn’t going to change my mind, we put a plan together: I’d pack my schedule for my last semester, graduate at the end of my junior year, and head off to college. And that’s how I found myself attending Columbia University in 1971 at sixteen years old, out of the house again but no more well-adjusted or less insecure than I’d been in high school.

I turned seventeen in December of 1971 and finished up my first semester with a spate of “Incompletes” and little hope that the second semester was going to be any better. So when February rolled around, watching John Lennon on television for five days in a row—even if it was on The Mike Douglas Show—didn’t seem like an unreasonable way to spend my time.

As I watched the first show on Monday, I found myself thumbing through a recent issue of The Village Voice and noticed an article about David Peel, the same guy whose ode to smoking pot I sang in high school. The article detailed how he and John Lennon had become running buddies when Lennon moved to New York. It seemed to me that David had reached some unimaginable level of counter-cultural hippie nirvana: Leading a life that consisted of singing about marijuana and hanging out with John Lennon. As I watched Lennon on television and perused the article, I wondered if David was watching. And then a wonderfully weird idea occurred to me in my smoke-induced reverie.

On a whim, I bounded back to my dorm room and grabbed the White Pages directory that was sitting in my closet. I navigated to the appropriate page and there it was: A listing for Peel, David.

I dialed the number, heard the phone ring a couple of times, and then David Peel’s unmistakable voice came across the line: “Hello?” All these years later, I can’t really explain what happened next. It wasn’t planned or thought out in any coherent way whatsoever. All I can tell you for sure is that it just happened.

“Hi. My name is George Colombo. I’m a free lance writer working on a story for New York Magazine about the counter-culture in New York City. I was hoping that I might be able to stop by and ask you a few questions.”

WTF?! I was stunned by the words that were coming out of my mouth. It was too late to make myself stop them but it didn’t matter. Surely, my crude duplicity was obvious even over the phone. David could certainly see through my flimsy story and could certainly hear that the voice on the other end of the line belonged to a seventeen year old kid who all of a sudden was scared shitless.

“That’s cool, man. Sure. So you want to come by here tomorrow night?”

I can’t tell you much about the rest of the conversation except that I could feel the pulse of my heart in my temple and wanted nothing in the world as much as I wanted to get off the phone before I was unmasked. I got his address and made arrangements to meet him there the following night.

The next day, February 15th, moved as slowly as molasses would have run in the cold that was enveloping New York that week. I watched John Lennon on The Mike Douglas Show again that afternoon (toking up as I did, of course) and was a bit surprised that Jerry Rubin turned up as a guest. Rubin was a yippie and a member of the Chicago Seven. He was as radical as it was possible to get. If Douglas and Rubin had met under any other circumstances, they might have tried to kill one another. On television, though, the encounter seemed surreal in its apparent normalcy.

By the time I took the subway downtown that night, it was freezing cold. I wasn’t at all familiar with the East Village and remember being surprised when I stumbled across The Fillmore East on my way to David’s apartment. He opened the door and was extremely gracious as he welcomed me into an apartment that was small and disheveled. The apartment’s only heat came from the open oven in the kitchen. If David was on to me, he was keeping it to himself.

I asked questions about counter-culture in New York and the political movement that was emanating from the streets and then dutifully recorded David’s answers on the clipboard I’d brought. He wasn’t impatient but was distinctly fidgety. After a respectable amount of time chatting, I worked up the nerve to ask the question that really mattered to me, the one I’d imagined myself asking since we’d gotten off the phone the day before: “Hey, would you like to smoke a joint?”

A moment later, I’d pulled a joint out of my coat pocket, fired it up, and was passing it back and forth with a guy whose songs about pot I sang almost every day in high school! Surely, I thought, this was going to be the highlight of the night. But, as it turned out, things were just getting started.

As he crushed the roach in the ashtray, David asked suddenly and without explanation, “Do you want to take a ride?” I had no idea what that meant but it didn’t matter. I was hanging out with David Peel, smoking pot in the Village, and all was right with the world. Whatever might keep the evening going was going to be fine with me.

I followed his lead as we worked our way over to the IRT and took a train uptown. I thought we were going to get off at Times Square but we continued up to 50th Street where we disembarked and walked a few blocks back downtown. David was pretty intent and there wasn’t a lot of banter going on. I kept my head down, my mouth shut, and just followed along.

David PeelSuddenly, we were standing in front of a nondescript wall that comprised the side of a building. There were no signs and no windows, only a solitary door in the middle of the wall. David pushed a doorbell next to the door but no sound seemed to emanate. We waited a moment and then the door opened. A very big guy opened the door, leaned out to survey the street, and then turned his attention to David. Wordlessly, almost imperceptibly, he motioned for David to come in. When I started following him inside, the big guy reached out and put his hand on my chest. He didn’t need to say the words, the message was perfectly clear: I wasn’t coming in.

From inside, David looked back and yelled back, “It’s okay, man. He’s with me.” Big guy said nothing and his face betrayed nothing. He simply removed his hand from my chest and stepped aside to let me pass.

Silently, I followed David down a hall and into an anteroom where he planted me in a chair near a side table and then disappeared. There was a large, upholstered door that was caddy corner from where we’d entered and over the next ten minutes or so, I watched people emerging and entering including, at one point, David. Whenever the door opened, I’d hear a voice inside booming over what sounded like a public address system: “We mayka payna fazen danz…” Even though I could only hear it in disjointed snippets, the voice seemed to just keep repeating the same thing over and over again. Weirdly, the voice sounded remarkably like John Lennon… or, at least, someone who was doing a great job of imitating John Lennon. There was no music, though, just the voice singing/yelling the same indecipherable incantation repeatedly. It was nothing I’d ever heard from Lennon before and I’d listened to every bit of his music including esoterica like Two Virgins.

As I sat there, trying to figure out exactly what was going on, an energetic figure bounded in from down the hall and deposited himself in a chair that was on the other side of the table next to me. I only saw the top of his head as he picked up the desk phone that was on the table and began dialing. When he looked up, though, the face was familiar and unmistakable. It was Jerry Rubin, the same guy I was watching on TV just a few hours earlier. I was too stunned to catch the beginning of the conversation. By the time I regained my composure, his end of the conversation was easy to discern (even as I looked away and pretended to be nonplussed). “Did you catch me this afternoon? How did I look? Did I look alright?” It wasn’t the kind of post-game analysis I’d have expected from one of the counter-culture’s most famous proponents but a more pressing question was occupying my attention: Where the hell was I?

Just then, David peeked out from behind the upholstered door and motioned for me to come inside. On the other side of the door, the answer to my question quickly came into focus. I was in a large room and in front of me was an enormous audio console facing out towards an empty recording studio. A couple of huge speakers were mounted on the ceiling in front of the console, the source of the obscure mantra that was once again repeating. While I was taking all of that in, David motioned for me to be quiet and take a seat in a chair in the back of the room. It was only after I sat down that I was able to turn my attention towards the three figures seated at the console with their backs to me.

Neither of the two men’s faces was visible but the woman sitting  onthe right was turned slightly to face towards her companions on her left. The lightbulb of recognition brightened in two distinct steps:

One: “She looks Japanese.”

Two: “That’s Yoko Ono.”

I still couldn’t see the faces of the two men sitting next to her but it didn’t matter. I suddenly knew who at least one of them was. And I realized why the voice booming through the speakers sounded just like John Lennon. There must have been a tape machine somewhere but I don’t remember seeing it. The man next to Yoko reached for a bottle that was sitting in front of him on the console, took a long swig, and put it down, a gesture he repeated several times over the next half hour or so until, apparently, the contents of the bottle were gone. The now familiar incantation kept repeating. Sometimes the entire phrase several times in a row, sometimes just a word or two. “We mayka payna fazen danz, we mayka payna fazen danz…”

As I took everything in, my urgent objective was to stay as quite and unobtrusive as possible. A disturbing vision kept intruding on my consciousness, the big guy from the front door bursting into the room, pointing at me, and shouting, “Grab that kid! He’s not from New York Magazine!”

Suddenly, there was a break in the proceedings. The guy sitting on the far left of the console got up and left the room. When he did, David walked over (I hadn’t even realized that he’d left) and motioned for me to join him. We walked up to the console and the guy sitting next to Yoko turned around. The fact that I knew it was going to be John Lennon didn’t mitigate the palpable electric shock of recognition even a little bit. My mind immediately flashed to another February night, almost exactly eight years before, when I saw his face for the first time on my grandmother’s television set. It took all the will I could summon to keep the atoms of my body from disintegrating and floating away to mix with the cigarette smoke that filled the air.

David positioned me behind John’s chair and repeated almost verbatim the fraudulent biography I’d given him on the phone the night before. (“This is George. He’s a freelance writer working on an article for New York Magazine.”) John considered me for a second and said something that might have been perfectly decipherable under other circumstances but I was not processing sensory input very well at that particular moment. My impression was not of someone being deliberately rude or dismissive but it was clear that the second of his attention I’d already consumed was all I was going to get.

I turned towards Yoko who seemed to plumb the depths of my soul with the most intense gaze I’d ever experienced. She’d heard David’s introduction and simply nodded. My abiding impression was that she was beautiful in a way that transcended any image of her I’d ever seen. Like most other Beatles fans, I had always wondered what it was that John saw in her. Seeing her in person, I never wondered that again.

David led me away from her, not back to my chair but out the big upholstered door. My time was up. As I left the room, the third figure who’d been sitting at the console walked back in. It was Phil Spector.

David and I said our goodbyes and I promised to let him know when the article was going to hit the newsstands. He didn’t seem very concerned about that but he had one last item to run down with me. “Yoko wanted to know if you had an extra joint you could leave for her.” As it happened, I did. I reached into my coat pocket and handed it over to David. I’ve often wondered if the joint really made its way to Yoko or if David kept it for himself. For a long time, I whimsically hoped that wound up with Yoko. Now, I find myself thinking that I’d be just as happy—maybe even happier—if David had kept it for himself. It would be a small bit of payback for a guy who graciously orchestrated the most improbable, unbelievable night of my life.

Postscript: On June 12, 1972, John and Yoko released Sometime in New York City, John’s third solo album, produced by Phil Spector. The album’s first song was “Woman Is the Nigger of the World,” Lennon’s attempt at a feminist anthem that ended with the repeating refrain, “We make her paint her face and dance.”

A Trivia Quiz For Beatles Aficionados

I thought I’d do something a bit different for today’s blog post: If you’re a hardcore Beatles fan, here’s a short quiz featuring my five all-time favorite Beatles trivia questions. Good luck… and no Googling!

  1. What is Paul McCartney’s middle name?
  2. One single released by the Beatles in the U.S. was unique in that neither side was a Lennon/McCartney composition. What was it?
  3. Only one Beatles song was credited as having been written by all four Beatles. What was it?
  4. Only one Beatles song was credited as having been written by three of the four Beatles. What was it?
  5. Which Beatles song featured only two of the Beatles doing all the vocals and playing all the instruments?

Click here for the answers.

Watching the Beatles phenomenon unfold in real time was one of the great pleasures of my entire life. In the immortal words of Dr. Winston O’Boogie, “You should have been there.”

The Beatles and Vonnegut

My Top Ten Tips for Speaking Effectively in Public

Version 2
This is a vintage image of an unidentified corporate presenter. He certainly looks like someone who’s wearing comfortable shoes.

On Facebook recently, the folks who manage the TED Talks page posted an ostensible list of tips they give their speakers. In the ensuing conversation, I mentioned my own experience as a speaker and the mental list of tips I’ve complied over the years. My comment drew responses that were so encouraging I decided to share a slightly expanded version of that list here. While there are no universally applicable approaches, I can tell you that the techniques you’ll find in this list are the most effective ones I learned (mostly the hard way) over a nine year career delivering corporate presentations:

1. Have a reliable opening, one you can deliver expertly and with confidence. Early on, I “appropriated” (from someone who’s name I’ve sadly long since forgotten) a short opening quip that broke the ice with the audience and almost always got a chuckle. It scaled well and worked reliably with all sorts of different audiences. Having this opening in my toolkit de-stressed the beginning of my presentations significantly. I knew that even if no other single line in my talk connected, this one would. The little bit of connection and the confidence it produced in thirty seconds was all it ever took for me to get off to a great start.

2. Use pauses and silences strategically to grab your audience’s attention. Most speakers’ natural inclination when they want to capture their audience’s attention is to turn the volume up to eleven. In fact, it’s often much more effective to pause and let a silence hang over the room, almost to the point of being uncomfortable. From there, you can deliver a bombshell or a punchline to an audience that’s perched on the edge of their seats to hear what you’re going to say next.

3. Wear comfortable shoes. This is advice that most people only learn through painful experience because no one thinks to warn you beforehand. Trust me on this. (And while you’re at it, make sure that your soles are non-slip.)

4. Design your visual aids with a thoroughly minimalist sensibility. Whatever people are there to learn, it’s better for them to hear it directly from you rather than read it off your slides. The best way to use slides is with a single visual on each one. The next best way is to use words as sparingly as possible; use them not as a script but as a scaffold on which to hang the real presentation, the one that you’ve giving right in front of them,

5. Tell stories. If you can find a short story to illustrate each of your important points, you’ll vault yourself into the top tier of presenters at your conference or event. Audiences relate to stories and, more important, they remember stories.

6. Study video of your presentations. You often don’t look like what you think you look like. I still come across blog posts that advise speakers to practice in front of a mirror. Simply put, this doesn’t work. You can’t see the things you need to see in a mirror. Not that they’re not there; you literally can’t see them because your minds edits and selectively interprets the signals it gets from your eyes. You’re just too involved with the image you see in the mirror to evaluative it usefully. Video gives you something relatively more objective to observe.

7. If logistics don’t confine you to a stage, walk around the room. Your judicious incorporation of movement into your presentation will keep your audience on its metaphoric toes. It’s a subtle but significant way to hold their attention and keep them engaged.

8. Find ways to get your audience to participate. There are lots of ways to get an audience involved. Ask a question and solicit answers. Take a poll that requires  show of hands. Get volunteers from the audience to role play. (NB: There’s a significant “degree of difficulty” factor on that one.) Like other items on this list, audience participation increases engagement.

9. Don’t read from your slides. Closely related to item number four above, this is one of the cardinal sins that unpracticed presenters commit. If this was the only item on this list that you totally mastered, you’d be better than at least half of the presenters that members of your audience have ever heard.

10. Practice, practice, practice. It’s almost impossible to do an outstanding job with a presentation you’ve never given before. There are always places that fall unexpectedly flat and transitions that don’t quite flow as smoothly as they did in your head. If it’s at all possible, find an opportunity to try your big presentation out on an “off Broadway” audience before you step out on stage in front of your actual target audience. Every time you give a particular presentation it will get more and more polished. (And here’s a corollary: In general, it’s easier to find a new audience than it is to craft a new presentation.)

A Field of Memes

Now that this blog has a respectable backlog of posts, my plan is to gradually increase the frequency of my posts as I undertake a similarly gradual uptick in my promotional efforts. Toward that end, I’ve begun experimenting with creating memes.

The idea, of course, is to create and distribute memes that will—with any luck—make their way to readers who’ll like what they find here at georgecolombo.com. With all of that in mind, I thought you might want to see a few of my early efforts (along with a random thought or two about each).

CannabisI created this one immediately after writing this blog post about the upcoming efforts to make medical marijuana available in the state of Florida. Both the meme and the blog post seemed to get a fair amount of positive attention on Facebook. I expect this is a topic I’ll be revisiting regularly as the ballot process progresses towards November of 2016.

David Foster WallaceI created this meme after seeing The End of the Tour, a movie about the great author, David Foster Wallace. There’s a slightly better quote than this in the move that conveys basically the same message but I couldn’t find it online and didn’t want to wait. Wallace was a towering intellect and, while Jason Segel delivers a plausible David Foster Wallage, watching video of the real Wallace is more intriguing for me. (Sure, see the movie but check out this Charlie Rose interview in the meantime.)

Martin Luther KingI’ve had three real, enduing heroes over the course of my life but Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is at the very top of the list. Today, Dr. King is perceived to be an anodyne figure, bland and inoffensive. The reality is that he was reviled in his lifetime and for a generation afterwards by large numbers of Americans. He was considered a rabble-rouser, publicity seeker, and a communist (the worst epithet you could hurl at someone at the time). This is one of several quotes by Dr. King that have really resonated with me over the years.

Tony BennWhen I saw Michael Moore’s Sicko, this quote by British politician Tony Benn really caught my attention. It’s so stark, so simple and, ultimately, so irrefutable. The specific topic in the movie was healthcare reform but Benn’s sentiment can extend out to embrace a whole range of things we can do with our money besides shoveling it into the production of arms

I’d be curious to get your feedback on these. My intention has been to use quotes that reflect the values of the blog. Does that make sense to you? And a Bonus Question: Can you put your finger on what motivates you to share something when you see it?

Glenn Greenwald on Donald Trump and Jorge Ramos

There are very few indispensable voices in today’s media environment but any reasonable list of those who qualify would have to include Glenn Greenwald. He’s the embodiment of independent journalism and there’s no better evidence of that than his column about the Ramos/Trump story.

It’s tempting to try to summarize the two or three most important take-aways from the article but I’d prefer that you take a moment to read the whole thing yourself. It’s important not only for Greenwald’s perspective on the incident itself but also for the broader issues he raises about the nature of corporate media in 2015. (And by “corporate media,” I mean literally 95 percent of all our media, every newspaper and television program you read or watch.)

If you haven’t seen the video yet, you’ll want to take a look:

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said, “The hardest thing to see is what is in front of our eyes” but no one can fail to see the inherent absurdities and dangers of this Potemkin campaign of Donald Trump’s. Apparently the real challenge for our “serious” media personalities today is to call out the cynical con that’s right there in front of their eyes.

An Exercise in Musical Discernment

Joseph ColomboMy son Joseph Colombo writes classical music. (In his online bio, he describes himself as a “San Francisco-based composer and noise maker.” The bio also notes that “he’s written music for orchestras, chamber ensembles, electronics, stage, film, installations, and everything in between.”) He and I got into an interesting email exchange the other day when I sent him a note expressing my enthusiasm for the Chapman Stick, a string-based musical instrument that was developed in the 1970s. (I’m the first one to admit that my tastes are somewhat pedestrian. As always, he was patient.)

Joseph’s reply made it clear that he didn’t share my enthusiasm for the relatively new instrument and its capabilities. He made some specific points of criticism though I won’t try to explain them here because I’m not sure I could do them justice. (He can do so on his blog if he’s so inclined.) Apart from the conclusion about the Chapman Stick that he reached, though, it was the way he made his case that struck me.

Joseph teaches composition music theory at The Academy of Art University in San Francisco, a gig for which he’s well suited because, like many composers, he has the heart of a teacher. When he explained his points to me, he did so in a way that was so instructive that I thought I’d share it here. (And, to tell the truth, finding fodder for interesting blog posts can be difficult; it occurred to me that when someone just plops something worthwhile in my lap—and does all the attendant research!—I might as well take advantage of it.)

Basically, Joseph provided me with performances of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV 565) on four different instruments. The idea was to compare and contrast the instruments’ properties. The process of giving each performance a close listen and then comparing and contrasting the attributes of each instrument was more than a little interesting.

The first performance was by Bob Culverson and featured his outstanding work on the Chapman Stick:

Next up is a guitarist names George Sakellariou playing the same Bach piece on a 2013 Annette Stephany maple and spruce guitar:

The third rendition featured Amy Turk playing the piece on a traditional harp:

And, finally there’s organist Hans-André Stamm with the most traditional interpretation:

This “compare and contrast” gave me a context listening—really listening—to each version of the music at a deeper level and to think about the tradeoffs that are always present whenever an artist makes musical choices… which happens, of course, all the time.

What do you think? Which instrument works best for you? What are each instrument’s strengths and weaknesses? How do you think the musical selection interacts with the instrumental choices? And, of course, there’s the most important question of all: What do you think of the Chapman Stick?