Rich Wilhelm

Archive for September, 2014|Monthly archive page

These. Are. The. Good. Times.

In Music/Memory, Music/Opinion, Philosophy/Creativity on September 25, 2014 at 6:30 am

I have been thinking about, and listening to, Chic’s 1979 hit song, “Good Times” quite a bit recently. I think it is the most present-tense song ever. Let me explain.

For those of you who were there, you might remember that 1979 wasn’t necessarily a great year. Jimmy Carter was president and his popularity was plummeting. There were enormous problems, including a major hostage crisis, in the Middle East. An energy crisis in the United States. I could go on. And on. It is quite likely that many people do not look upon 1979 fondly.

On top of all of that, you had disco music, riding high for what would be its final year of chart supremacy. For some, the continued success of disco music represented the worst that 1979 had to offer, musically or otherwise.

Not me, though. I liked disco. Liked it then. Like it now.

Chic was perhaps the most successful of the disco bands, though their music quite transcended the genre-even if it would take decades for many of us to figure that out. Coming off a huge hit single in 1978’s “Le Freak,” Chic released its album Risque early in the summer of ’79. Risque contained the epic “Good Times,” which was an immediate monster hit.

There is so much to love, musically, about “Good Times.” The song opens with one second of the most gargantuan musical chord you’ll ever hear on an organ, before the trio of Chic musicians-guitarist Nile Rodgers, bassist Bernard Edwards and drummer Tony Thompson–set the song up with their scientifically precise yet funky interaction. A pianist, whether it be one of the Chic guys or another musician, provides musical accents before singers Alfa Anderson and Luci Martin enter the picture, along with a string section, to declare:

“Good. Times. These. Are. The. Good. Times. Leave. Your. Cares. Behind. These. Are. The. Good. Times.”

The excessive punctuation is intentional because the singers make it clear that each of those opening 16 words has equal weight.

These. Are. The. Good. Times.

Musically that’s the song. Of course the killer bass line by Edwards would inspire two huge hits within a year: Queen’s dynamic disco rock mash-up “Another One Bites the Dust,” and Sugarhill Gang’s pioneering “Rapper’s Delight.” When the instrumental breakdown of the extended version of “Good Times” hits, you’ll feel that bass, for sure.

Back in 1979, this deceptively simple set of musical elements may have seemed like yet another here-and-gone disco tune, but there is so much more going on in “Good Times.” The song could be seen to reflect the cocaine-and-Halston culture of 1979 disco New York, as seen and heard at disco club Studio 54. That would be ironic since the members of Chic were not recognized, and apparently denied access to that hallowed hot spot after their earliest success, an incident that provided the songwriting inspiration for “Le Freak.”

“Good Times” isn’t about Studio 54 at all. It isn’t even about 1979. Or Chic. More than any other song swirling around my jukebox of a brain, “Good Times” is about living in this moment. Because these. are. the. good. times.

Chic was well aware that 1979 was not necessarily the year of “Good Times” when they wrote this song. This is apparently why lyrical snippets of Great Depression era songs, such as “Happy Days Are Here Again” creep into the words of “Good Times.” For all the implicit irony though, and the lines about clams on the half shell and roller skates, the message of the song burns through the sleek arrangement and sly vocals: the present tense, the right now, is what you’ve got and it’s the only thing you can really be assured you have. What are you going to do about it?

There is deep irony in “Good Times,” in approximately the same way that there is deep irony in the theme song to the hit 1970s series, “Good Times.” Ain’t we lucky we got ’em, good times?

Some people might think of Chic’s “Good Times” as bearing the same message as Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration.” But where that song says, “Celebrate good times,” Chic is saying “THESE are the good times.” There is a difference.

Of course, I didn’t think about “Good Times” this deeply when I first heard it pumping out of a radio at my Aunt Mary Jo’s house, where we were living between-houses in the summer of ’79. I heard it then, I guess, as one of many great pop tunes happening at a time when I was listening to the radio much more than I have at most other periods of my life. I was a kid then.

Thirty-five years have passed and clearly I’m not a kid anymore. I’m a middle-aged man, edging ever closer to 50. My hair is more gray than any other shade these days. I’ve got responsibilities, large and small, weighing me down and in 2014 I am being constantly being pummeled by bad news, both nationally and internationally. In addition to all of this, as I write this, it is 2:28 on a Thursday morning and I am currently in my eighth or ninth day of an insomnia jag that has me up when I should be down and vice versa. None of this makes me in any way unique–so many of us could be forgiven if we look inward and outward these days and say “These are the not-so-good times.” But then along comes Chic, sounding timeless and noting, “These. Are. The. Good Times.”

And dammit, Chic is right. Chic was right when they wrote the song and I’m sure that Nile Rodgers–the lone survivor of the Rodgers-Edwards-Thompson trio, as well as being a cancer survivor–knows for damn sure that Chic is right today.

Chic is challenging me and anyone else who cares to listen:

“These. Are. The. Good. Times.”

I know Chic is right. It’s up to me to figure out what to do about it.



In Philosophy/Creativity on September 22, 2014 at 2:55 am
"An Interesting Guy"

“An Interesting Guy”

The organization that has employed me for, lo, these past 24 years is about to launch a new brand for itself. I am not going to describe that rebranding project here-I write enough about work when I am at work-but I did get to thinking today that most of us are in a constant state of personal rebranding.

We rebrand for many different reasons. Sometimes we want to launch that new, improved version of ourselves to land a job. Sometimes we want to impress someone we’ve recently met, and with whom we believe we’d like to spend much more time, or at least the rest of the night.

Important life events-marriage, childbirth, illness, the death of loved ones-all of these things can change us in ways that could certainly be called rebranding, if only on a subconscious level.

Even when we dip our toes in some new form of social media, we make whatever adjustments we need to make to show ourselves off to our best advantage.

Rebranding helps us from becoming emotionally stagnant. If it’s done properly, rebranding is a healthy thing.

Looking over the last five or even ten years of my life, I can see subtle signs of my own rebranding. I have gradually been adding various activities to personal portfolio. I have gotten involved with the local American Cancer Society Relay for Life. I started making notebooks out of record album covers and VHS boxes and selling them to people from my own town of Phoenixville to as far away as Australia. I trained to become a certified volunteer tour guide at Laurel Hill Cemetery, one of a select group of cemeteries to be designated a National Historic Landmark.

I have had many different reasons for engaging myself in relays, notebooks, cemeteries and other things. However, one thread that probably runs through it all is that it all has contributed to my ongoing rebranding. And the mission statement, if you will, behind the rebranding? I want to be thought of as “interesting.” So much so that, when I had personal business cards made, I titled myself “An Interesting Guy.” This was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but I think there was a little bit of “if you build it, they will come” rebranding involved as well.

But here’s the thing I’ve realized about rebranding: you can change yourself outwardly in order to let people know that you exist and are, in fact, interesting, but this personal public relations work doesn’t necessarily change who you are inside. It can facilitate that change, but this is by no means a given outcome of personal rebranding.

This is certainly true in my case. Despite whatever “new and improved” version of me I project through the things I do, I’m still riddled with the same fears, doubts, insecurities and various and sundry shortcomings that I had before I took on the role of “An Interesting Guy.” So, as rebranded as I might feel in certain ways, in other ways, I’m the same guy I’ve been for the last 49 years.

Paradoxically, I find this state of affairs to be both comforting and discomforting. In a way, I like the idea that, whatever changes I’ve gone through, I can still locate my core identity. And doing the things that might contribute to a rebranded me had certainly enhanced my life in myriad ways. On the other hand, it often feels like there is this yawning gap between the exterior “interesting guy” me and the interior middle-aged guy who is dealing with middle-aged stuff. I might get confused at times about where all of this is headed, but this feels like a thoroughly human confusion, and lately, I have found myself to be generally OK with it. Because, no matter how I rebrand myself, I’m always going to be a human.

Pinwheels and Tombstones

In Uncategorized on September 16, 2014 at 1:57 am
The Lapsley family tombstone, now featuring pinwheels.

The Lapsley family tombstone, now featuring pinwheels.

I have been a lifelong cemetery tourist, seeking out grand historic resting places, as well as obscure little graveyards, in which to wander. In 2012, I took this curious avocation to its next logical step, becoming a certified volunteer tour guide at Laurel Hill Cemetery, a National Historic Landmark in the East Falls neighborhood of Philadelphia.

I visit cemeteries in search of history, art and, yes, a bit of haunted atmosphere. But I have never been a ghost hunter. I remain, more or less, a skeptic on the paranormal. The skepticism exists despite the fact that, back when my wife Donna and I used to watch Robert Stack on Unsolved Mysteries, I would loudly state my preference for tales of ghosts and Sasquatches. Meanwhile, Donna would roll her eyes and wait patiently for Stack to finish rattling on about the Loch Ness Monster so he could get on with a juicy true crime story. To this day, Donna and I agree to disagree on our Unsolved Mysteries preferences.

With all of that in mind, let me tell you about the spirit I may or may not have encountered on a lunchtime visit to Laurel Hill in late July. And, more importantly, the living, breathing person who was communicating with that spirit.

I was sitting on an ornate bench at the family plot of General George Gordon Meade, who led the Union forces to victory at the Battle of Gettsyburg. This bench is located underneath a large and ancient tree that bore silent witness to Meade’s 1872 burial, which President Ulysses S. Grant attended.

As I finished my lunch, I noticed two men standing above a flat tombstone, not far from me. These men had brought, and were using, a contraption: a tall tripod, on top of which rested a rooster figurine and a pinwheel. They were speaking to each other, and probably knew I was watching them, but did not seem concerned. After awhile, the men moved on and I finished my lunch.

Heading back to my car, I walked past the men at another gravesite. This time, my curiosity insisted that it be satisfied, so I approached. One of the men was considerably older than me, the other probably a bit younger than I am. Both were dressed casually, but the older man also appeared to be attired for a ritual, with a green cap, some beads and shells around his neck and a shirt that had a loose and flowing feel to it.

I said hello and asked what they were doing. I tried to sound casual, and the men seemed comfortable letting me in on their activity. The old man did not speak much English, but with the young man translating from Spanish, I was told that they had come to Laurel Hill to communicate with the spirits of some of the cemetery’s permanent residents.

The tripod pinwheel setup was the mechanism for doing so. They would set it up at certain spots of the old man’s choosing and the spinning pinwheel would help to translate the “good winds” being generated by the spirit of someone buried nearby. The pinwheel was indeed spinning as this was explained to me.

That is when I encountered Anna Welsh Lapsley. Born January 23, 1796. Died June 23, 1879. Made a brief reappearance July 30, 2014.

Anna is one of several people buried in the Lapsley family plot at Laurel Hill. The Lapsleys were prominent Philadelphia merchants, with international connections, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. David Lapsley, Sr., was the father of four sons, one of which was David Jr., who was married to Anna.

According to the old man, of all the Lapsley family members, it was Anna’s spirit that was most prominent. There was a strong implication that the men of the Lapsley family weren’t to be taken seriously as spirits, regardless of whatever business acumen they had possessed in real life. The old man described Anna as a very sophisticated woman who traveled extensively and knew about fine silks and such things. He also noted that if I was feeling troubled, I could come to visit Anna and that she might communicate something to me that could comfort me and in some other way help me.

I also learned that the spirit that had been visiting the men when I first observed them from the bench was a woman who was friends with Anna in real life. Her name was Rachel R. Simmons and she and Anna apparently they knew each other well and traveled together.

I talked awhile more with the men as the pinwheel’s activity ebbed and flowed. The old man advised me that if I set up a pinwheel in front of and just behind my house, they would work together to direct the good winds through our home in order to help us with any hard times or problems we are encountering.

By then it was time for me to leave, and, apparently them too. We shook hands and went our separate ways. Even at that moment, I knew I did not want to get contact information or ask them to further demonstrate the good winds. We had experienced that moment, the three of us—and, perhaps, Anna–and it was over.

Time to move on, but on my way back to work I thought about how unlikely it seemed that these two men were in their own car, cackling about how they pulled a fast one on me, or speculating on how they could turn their pinwheel-and-rooster-on-a-tripod shtick into a reality show for the History Network. Whatever it was they were doing at Laurel Hill that day, I believe they were sincere about it.

Do I believe that the three of us encountered the real disembodied spirit of Anna Welsh Lapsley that day? I seriously doubt it. At the same time though, I’ve come to believe that certain things are simply unknowable. While the old man might not have been necessarily receiving communiqués from a specific woman who died more than a century ago, maybe there are people among us who have a profound intuition that flows like a deep, quiet river beneath the foundation of science and/or religion that most of us turn to for quick and easy answers.

As a postscript, later in the evening on the day of my lunch visit, I walked into our local Dollar Tree and found a display of pinwheels, front and center in the store. I bought two and set them up in our yard. Just in case, you know? Eventually I bought two more and they could be spinning away at the Lapsley gravesite at Laurel Hill at this very moment, capturing the spirit of Anna Welsh Lapsley—or something—in the good winds.

The Dead Milkmen! At Laurel Hill!

In Uncategorized on September 7, 2014 at 3:44 am

The Dead Milkmen wrapped up their Laurel Hill Cemetery concert just 24 hours ago. I have spent a good part of today contemplating what a profound experience last night turned out to be.

Yes, I just used the words “profound” and “Dead Milkmen” in relation to each other. Not a shred of irony was used in the construction of those sentences.

The Dead Milkmen concert at Laurel Hill Cemetery last evening was a profound experience for me. But, I’m thinking, not just me.

When the show was first announced in July, I very briefly thought that I might be the sole inhabitant of the center of a Venn Diagram showing fans of Philadelphia’s favorite satirical punks and the city’s most celebrated cemetery, where I happen to be a volunteer tour guide. How undeniably, blissfully wrong I was about that! Best thing I’ve been wrong about ever.

I realized the error of my thinking within minutes of sharing Laurel Hill’s Facebook post that the Dead Milkmen would be playing. Ecstatic comments popped up immediately from Dead Milkmen fans who also happen to love Laurel Hill in the way that I do. It was semi-jokingly suggested that I ought to do an LHC tour the afternoon of the show. But that particular joke was, in fact, an excellent idea and within an hour I had announced through my Facebook page, that I’d be doing a pre-show tour.

Let me stop for a moment to describe my history with both the Dead Milkmen and Laurel Hill Cemetery. Way back in 1985, Dean Clean, Joe Jack Talcum, Dave Blood and Rodney Anonymous released their first Dead Milkmen album, Big Lizard in My Back Yard. Soon thereafter, I journeyed from my dorm room at Temple University, via the Broad Street Subway, to one of the now-legendary Sounds of Market record stores in Center City Philadelphia. There, as the clerks exhorted customers not to go to mall record stores, I purchased my own personal vinyl copy of Big Lizard. It would spend many happy hours on my turntable in Room 232, Johnson Hall, blaring once- and future-classics like “Bitchin’ Camaro,” “Tiny Town” and “Serrated Edge”–the best song about Charles Nelson Reilly ever–for my friends and me. Good times. No, great times.

I followed the Dead Milkmen through their next few albums and their classic “Punk Rock Girl” but never managed to see the band live. Until last night.

Which brings me to Laurel Hill Cemetery. Founded in 1836, LHC is a National Historic Landmark, one of the few cemeteries in the country to have that distinction. It covers well over 70 acres in the East Falls neighborhood of Philadelphia and is filled with unique memorials to both well-remembered and little-known Philadelphians. Though I have been a cemetery tourist for years, I managed to not visit LHC until 2012, but I’ve made up for that by becoming one of the cemetery’s approximately two dozen volunteer tour guides. I’ve since given several tours, showing the cemetery to first-time and repeat visitors alike.

I flat out love Laurel Hill and the staff and volunteers associated with it.

Laurel Hill also happens to be the perfect venue for a Dead Milkmen concert. The guys in the band certainly knew that. They love the place as much as the LHC staff and volunteers do.

Now you’re up to speed and I can tell you about the tour and the show and just how profound the whole thing was. My tour ran from about 4:20 until the fairly intense heat and humidity melted us and we fled back to the air conditioned gatehouse before heading down to the show. I had a total of eight people on the tour. My wife Donna and our Phoenixville-area friends Jennifer, Tina, Laura and Laura were there. In addition, we had three serious Dead Milkmen fans from out of town–husband and wife Ed and Grace from York, Pennsylvania; and Sean, who had taken the train down from Boston.

The tour was great fun–yes, cemetery tours can be fun! Thanks to something I had learned from another LHC guide, Kerry Bryan, I was able to show the tour group a milkmen-relevant gravesite–that of Mary Engle Pennington, “the mother of refrigerated transportation.” Pennington, who is in halls of fame devoted to both women and chemists, invented technology that made refrigerated boxcars, and thus the transportation of milk and beer over great distances, possible.

Everyone got to talking during the tour. The Phoenixville friends had a new experience to share and the very obvious shared interests-the Dead Milkmen and old cemeteries-made for easy conversation that led to new friendships.

All of this was reinforced by the concert itself. More than 900 fans came to see the Dead Milkmen and opening act S.T.A.R.W.O.O.D. Just walking among the crowd, I got the feeling that, while everyone was just there to have a good time listening to the music, there was also this sense of what a cool and unique experience seeing the Dead Milkmen among the tombs and mausoleums was.

And, while this isn’t necessarily meant to be a music review, I can assure you that the Dead Milkmen rocked, playing many beloved classics, along with a few very promising tunes from their upcoming album, Pretty Music for Pretty People.

I think what will linger with me about last night is how the venue, the audience, the bands, and even the spirits of Laurel Hill’s permanent residents all merged into an experience that we’ll all remember for the rest of our lives. And, though some people might find the idea of a punk rock concert in a cemetery to be disrespectful, I beg to differ. The founders of Laurel Hill built it for the living, as well as the dead. Those of us at the show were simply extensions of our weird Victorian ancestors, who would bring picnics to Laurel Hill and other cemeteries. In the end, both the tour I gave and the concert were celebrations of life in all its odd glory, as well as an opportunity to build on a community that revels in the eccentricities of life.

Plus, it was all just plain cool, in the best sense of the word.

The Dead Milkmen concert at Laurel Hill Cemetery was a profound experience for me. But, I’m thinking, not just for me.

Patrick F. O'Donnell

writer, editor, general wordsmith and scribe

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