Rich Wilhelm

Living in America?

In Uncategorized on January 28, 2017 at 8:55 pm

I dropped by the local McDonald’s today for a quick lunch. I should avoid fast food, but McDonald’s has a new menu item that I had to try. The Mac Jr. To understand why I need to try this burger, I have to go back a few decades, to the early 1980s.

During those years, I worked at McDonald’s. When I’d go on breaks, I’d often make what I called (at least to myself) a “Li’l Mac.” Basically this was a single burger Big Mac and, at the time, I found it to be delicious. Just the perfect burger, particularly if I wasn’t working long enough hours that day to qualify for a complete Big Mac during my break time.

Incidentally, during my Li’l Mac-making years, President Ronald Reagan was talking tough about Russia. Remember when Reagan joked that he had just signed legislation that would outlaw Russia forever, and that bombing would begin in five minutes? That was cute, right?

While I sampled the Mac Jr. (not bad, but it’s no Li’l Mac),  the muted overhead television was showing CNN coverage of President Trump’s freshly signed travel ban executive order. You know the one, in which people from certain Muslim-dominated countries, are not going to be admitted into the United States. Of course, excluded from the travel ban is Saudi Arabia, the country from which most of the 9/11 hijackers emerged, but also a country with which Trump has done a fair amount of business. But I’m sure there is some other, alternative reason, having nothing to do with Trump’s business interests, that led to this exclusion.

As I watched the reports of uncertainty over which huddled masses are actually allowed to be in this country right now, James Brown’s 1985 hit song, “Living in America” was playing over the sound system. A song that was a huge hit back in Reagan’s America.

This is not some alternative fact that I cooked up to insert irony into this essay. It actually happened.

James Brown did not write “Living in America,” but one of the key lyrics (written by Charles Kaufman, Charlie Midnight and Dan Hartman) notes,

“You may not be looking for the promised land/But you might find it anyway/Under those old familiar names, like…”

Brown then shouts out the names of nine major American cities. Some of which may even be “sanctuary cities” today.

It’s probably worth noting at this point that “Living in America” was featured in Rocky IV, the movie in which Russian boxer Ivan Drago kills American boxer Apollo Creed in the ring. Rocky then steps in the ring to avenge Creed’s death. Cold war metaphors abound.

Speaking of which, Trump plans on speaking with Russian leader Vladimir Putin today. I’m sure that will go well, given that both Trump and Putin are upright, decent guys.

So what’s my point? I’m not even sure that I have one yet, other than thinking that, as much as I did not love Ronald Reagan or his policies–and I will not pretend I did–I don’t think Reagan would recognize the dark, cold, and pessimistic vision of the United States that Donald Trump endorsed this week each time he signed an executive order. This is in no way “morning in America,” and in the end, these actions will not “make America great again.”

Living in America? I’m not so sure that I  am right now.




New Year’s Thoughts Recorded During My First Listen to a Vinyl Copy of David Bowie’s “Blackstar”

In David Bowie, Music/Opinion on December 31, 2016 at 2:25 pm



Tall Father Christmas was honored to take a few spins on David Bowie’s “Blackstar” album. Santa is happy that Rich’s mom gave him this super cool piece of vinyl for Christmas.


I will admit it: David Bowie’s album, Blackstar, is the only record made in 2016 that I have truly delved into and listened to in depth. Not to go blaming the year 2016 itself — though,  why not? 2016 is being blamed for all kinds of things.– but, for a variety of reasons, this was not a year in which I sought out new music and listened to it often and deeply enough to get a handle on it.

As someone who loves music, and likes to keep up with it, I wish I had been more diligent. As it happens, I’m making up for it now, diving into amazing albums by artists ranging from A Tribe Called Quest to Sturgill Simpson to Loretta Lynn to Solange to Leonard Cohen to Drive By Truckers. And, yes, of course I will give Lemonade a listen. Maybe I’ll write about those albums someday, but for now, I want to focus on Blackstar.

It was my intention to go out and get Blackstar (on CD. I’m still a little backward.) the day it was released, January 8–Bowie’s 69th birthday. That didn’t happen, nor did it happen over the next two days. Then, Bowie was gone.

Even just hours after the awful news of Bowie’s passing had hit, it was becoming difficult to find copies of Blackstar in stores, but I drove up to Plymouth Meeting Mall during my lunch break and found it at the FYE store. I began listening to it on my way back to the office and I’ve been listening consistently to it ever since.

It is important for me to note this: Bowie could be alive and well right now — and don’t we all wish he was? — and I would still consider Blackstar to be a major piece of work. Of course, the circumstances of the album’s creation and release lend a deeper resonance to the songs, but now that Bowie can no longer speak for the merits of Blackstar, the album easily speaks for itself.

Despite that, I think Blackstar might have become an intimidating listen for some people because it was labeled Bowie’s “death” album the moment Bowie died, and once something becomes a death album, some listeners might step away from it.

The truth is, Blackstar is dark and eerie in places. But it also crackles with dark humor at times and the music is spectacularly played by Donny McCaslin and members of his avant jazz group. Bowie’s voice is magnificent, he contributed some nice guitar playing, and his lyrics are as odd and cryptic as ever.

In short, Blackstar is Grammy Album of the Year material and ought to have been a shoo-in for a posthumous nomination. It would have been the most deserved posthumous Grammy award ever, and yet the folks who decide these things felt that Justin Bieber’s latest album needed an Album of the Year nod more that Blackstar did.

Whatever, Grammy people, whatever. And I say this as a guy who doesn’t even have any serious issues with the Biebs or his music.

Can’t let the Grammy’s lack of foresight derail my train of thought though. The seven songs on Blackstar, from the sprawling –and, yes, eerie — title track to the oddly uplifting closing song, “I Can’t Give Everything Away” are well worth hearing here and now and, I think will be well worth hearing 50 years from now. If you’ve heard Blackstar, you know what I’m talking about.  If not, I agree with Bowie: I can’t give everything away about Blackstar. You ought to give it a spin.

I have a feeling that Bowie would have preferred that people simply pay attention to the music on Blackstar, rather than the circumstances under which it was recorded, and I get that. But, particularly on the last day of what many people consider to have been a crummy year, it is worth noting that, when faced with the ultimate deadline, David Bowie got down to the business of being David Bowie.

Of course, that meant writing and recording Blackstar, as well as a musical called Lazarus. I’m sure it meant taking early morning walks through his beloved adopted hometown, New York City, at least when he felt up to it. And, of course, spending time with his wife and daughter. Bowie seemingly spent his final year fully being David Bowie. With Blackstar, we have all benefitted from the fullness of Bowie’s final year, but most of all, I hope Bowie shuffled away knowing he’d made the best use of his time that he could have.

And I’d suggest that could be our challenge for the coming year, and the years to follow. While we all hope to not receive the dire diagnosis Bowie did, each of us will face struggles in 2017. And it’s no secrete that many of us here in the United States are not happy with the incoming presidential administration and are trying to work out our best response to that situation. But if each us reached deep into ourselves and attempted to live the best versions of ourselves, if we each tapped into whatever mysterious force David Bowie accessed during the final year of his life, maybe 2017 won’t be so bad after all.

Happy New Year, people. Let’s do something with 2017. And, thank you David.




16 Posts from 2016

In Uncategorized on December 29, 2016 at 7:03 am


A late December evening, 2016. I add a little stronger peppermint to my peppermint mocha, listen to the most recent works of Wilco, Bob Dylan, and the late great Leonard Cohen, and contemplate my year by strolling through the last 12 months worth of entries in this blog.

Earlier today, the editor of the magazine for which I write (ASTM International’s Standardization News), created a list of the Top 16 stories in this year’s issues. This has given me the idea to do the same with my 2016 blog entries.

As it happens, I sat down at my laptop nearly 40 times this year to say something via Dichotomy of the Dog, so I had to stop and consider which 16 entries might be my favorites, the ones that sum up the year. But the 16 that I link to below–in Casey Kasem countdown format–tie my 2016 together about as well as anything else could.

There is a fair amount of introspection going on in many of these entries and I’ll be the first to note that I am not, of course, the first to note these sentiments. But getting all this down in writing seemed to take on extra importance for me this year, and I’m glad I did it.

If you happened to read some of these entries as I posted them this year, thank you! I truly appreciate your time!

Finally, a warning: a few of these entries are silly. But now more than ever, maybe we need silly.

16. Knee Deep in Knee Deep in the Hoopla. The first entry in a ridiculous and abandoned series of entries written while listening to Starship’s infamous Knee Deep in the Hoopla album. Just because I abandoned this idea does not mean I won’t return to it someday.

15.There Is No Way In Hell I Will Ever Vote for Donald Trump. My political statement of the year. I stand by it, and always will.

14. MonkDay 002. My first blast of post-election weirdness.  More weirdness lies ahead, I’m sure.

13. raspberry strawberry lemon and lime what do I care (Happy Birthday Bob Dylan)  Just a quick few lines, dashed off on Bob Dylan’s birthday. I was happy to be writing about a living musician for a change.

12. Too Much Thyme on My Hands. Originally written years ago, this resonated enough with me this year that I wanted to revive it.

11. I Dream of Hall and Oates. I may have offended John Oates.

10. Sunday Morning Beury/Sunday Morning Lorraine. Chris and I visit cool old buildings, take photos.

9. Shiny Happy People Revisited. Or, “Why I’ll Never Hate ‘Shiny, Happy People’ the Way Some Hardcore Fans Hate ‘Shiny, Happy People.'”

8. Row.And.Stop. Memories of my ninth grade typing class, one of the most useful classes I ever took.

7. Bono at WaWa. Self-explanatory.

6. Laurel Hill Tales #002: Augustus Goodyear Heaton. Some thoughts on one of my favorite “permanent residents” at Laurel Hill Cemetery. Author of “The Amorous Numismatist.” If you like this entry, try William Duane, an early American journalist whose story is relevant to our current sorry state of affairs.

5. Oh What A Week That Was. The week Jimmy graduated high school and Chris was promoted from middle school to high school. A big week.

4. The Somewhat Better. Trying to figure things out and learning to live with a life that might not be the “best” it can be, but is better than it was.

3. Kids Take You Places. In which Chris and I visit abandoned spots and I think about other places he and Jimmy have taken me.

2. The Moments. A song by my friend Cliff and the removal of an ancient tree remind me to “hang on to the moment.”

1. Dear Eighteen-Year-Old at the David Bowie Concert. Of all the celebrity deaths this year, Bowie’s hit me hardest. Though Bowie was so much more than a “celebrity,” of course. Writing this just after Bowie’s January death paved the way for everything else worthwhile that I wrote this year. Also, devastating to think that I needed to write this way about both Prince and Merle Haggard this year as well. Don’t let anyone convince you that the death of an admired artist of any sort won’t have an effect on you.

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