Back at my desk after two weeks away, and nothing has changed. Why would it? There’s nothing here to disturb anything. A fortnight passes and nothing occurred in this space. No one sat at my chair, no one looked at the things on my cubicle wall. The monitor showed the same beach scene (just turned it off, don’t know why it was on; maybe to give the place some life, not look like everything had gone out of business.)

I did the same things I did every Monday - there’s lots - and was a bit disconcerted to think “but it’s 2021. Wasn’t I going to do different things?” And then I remembered that I had, in fact, done something different that morning, the first step in a big project to understand 1950s pop music. Particularly the pre-rock-and-roll stuff. If you say to someone “describe 1950s radio music!” They would not say “Ethel Merman doing a duet with Ray Bolger,” but that’s what it was. There’s also something curious you never hear today: the same song charting multiple times by different artists. A song got big, everyone had to take a swing at it.

So that was instructive. I learned something different. But everything else is precisely as it was, which should be no surprise at all. You just think it will be, because the vapors from the holiday season haven’t evaporated completely yet.

Give it a week. Then we’re all rebars in the hardening concrete of January.

Don’t get me wrong: it was good to be back to something close to the routine. On the way into work I did a sales call with a new ad client for a podcast, and that was fun: pacing back and forth on the second-floor walkway of the building talking about federal oversight of gold depositories, with absolutely no one around to bother. It’s almost like living on a desert island, except there’s no point in spelling out PLEASE COME BACK in coconut shells on the floor. I did see a fellow employee, but he was masked, and vanished into the shadows moments after I said his name, so he might have been a hallucination. The only other person who came to the newsroom was the cleaner, who spritzes the plants.

A year ago the front page was all about Iran: they declared the nuke deal dead! Analysts said the attack on Sulimeni might revive ISIS! Hezbollah vows America will pay a heavy price! Previous administrations had regarded the Iranian to be just as dangerous dead as alive!

Five days later, on a2:

Ten days after that, news that China reported 17 more people had the “mysterious new virus.” Seventeen. The total death toll in China on the 21st of January was reported as . . . four. The next day the paper had a front-page story about the first US case, from a guy who’d been to China. Total Chinese cases, the paper reported: 300, with six dead.

Anyone believe that?

I'll be noting the way the story moved for the next few months. Nothing heavy, just a reminder. Not what happened so much as what we were told.










The Amazon documentary “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” is a fawning two-hour account of the BeeGees’ rise and fall and rise. It explains how they rose from the ashes of irrelevance: they went funk-lite falsetto-soul as disco was surging in the gay clubs. “Jive Talking” was the song that told the world they’d remade themselves into something new.

How I hated that song.

I was in high school. Where you stood on a song mattered, a lot. In my social group, which was the Speech and Debate club, the song was polarizing: Chuck liked it, Kent was disdainful. Chuck’s tastes I could never figure out. He was a big Jefferson Starship booster, which said it all, to me: banal AOR, fake "progressive," but give them credit for hiring Papa John. Kent’s tastes I never shared - he was a jazz man, a solid funk fan who dipped into jazz-prog like Al DiMeola (whom I hated, nothing but show-off speed, it wasn't RAWK, MAN). But now and then Kent would call me on the phone, put the receiver to the speaker, play “Immigrant Song” because it was AWESOME, and then hang up. I'm sure he saw the BeeGees as tourists. Posers.

I just didn’t like it, period. The falsetto phase of pop music in the mid-70s was grating to my ears. I had no fellow-feeling for the funk; just never hit me where I lived. You gotta listen to this, Kent would say, dropping the needle on the Ohio Players. FIIII-UYAH! Say what?

It did nothing.

Then the BeeGees were inescapable, thanks to Saturday Night Fever. When that hit I was working a basement college bar in Dinkytown, slinging beer and pizzas. The sorority girls arrived in waves, tumbling down the carpeted steps under the faux-tiffany lamp, one cohort after the other, eager to pump the juke and summon the gods of the high-hat and whacka-chicka guitars. The regulars would sigh and rise from their barstools, head back to the Rockola, space out the disco with the legacy tunes that never left the playlist - Satisfaction, House of the Rising Son, The Thrill Is Gone. But it always came back to the BeeGees, and those four songs.

Stayin’ Alive
You Should Be Dancing
Night Fever
More Than a Woman

I fought it, because it was the BeeGees, it was disco, and disco sucks! Me for skinny tie and spotty Brits yelling at the Queen!

But there was this one night. I can’t even begin to date it, and I can’t guarantee it happened in the way the way I’m about to say, except it did. That was the night when everything was good. Everything.

What’s everything? Like this. You’re young. You think of yourself as grown, not young, but yeah, you’re young. It’s Saturday night. The place is jammed. There’s a line of quarters on the hot pinball machines, two or three players waiting their turn. Same with the pool tables. No one can hear what’s on the TV. The popcorn machine is dumping one load after the other, no respite. Pizzas are coming down from the kitchen every five minutes - we’re so slammed you have to rescue errant parmesan shakers from the game room, where they migrated somehow. You have to bring up a load of carafes for the dishwasher, because you’re pouring more wine than usual tonight, which means more girls. It’s 11:30. All your regulars are sitting at the bar, and they’re happy; they’re all out of college, or never went, or went for a while and quit but never drifted out of college town. They live for a night like this: Dinkytown is breaking and everything is shaking.

We sold beer in plastic pitchers. Lightweight, disposable. I’d learned a trick: grab it from the shelf, flip it, catch it by the handle, fill it. An utterly unnecessary affectation, but once you learn how to do it, you can’t not do it that way. It adds something. Maybe they’ll tip.

So it was one of those nights, everything going as well as it possibly could, the room loud and fragrant with popcorn oil and cigarettes and perfume, tips were good, I'd just had a good flirt with a booth of lovelies, and someone’s quarter burst into “Stayin’ Alive” just as I flipped a pitcher and jammed it up to the tap, and a bright hot electric thread ran through everyone in the place. I surrendered to the BeeGees.

I would deny them later in the daybreak, because, well, c’mon, disco.

There’s a peculiar curse that attaches to mega-popular songs: everyone knows them, so no one wants to hear them again. For a while, anyway. The song comes on the radio, you change the channel. The song is used as a reference to indicate an mood or an era. You don’t need to hear it, because you know it - and it’s so loaded with references to your own time and place you can’t hear it for what it is. (As I went on and on about yesterday, which I wrote after this. Sorry.)

Years later - decades later - the Simpsons used the tune. Bart had accomplished something, and said “There’s only one thing to do. Strut.” And Stayin’ Alive came one as he strode the streets of Springfield. Shorn of all the old contexts, the hook leaped out at me: remember this? It’s really good. It’s really quite unique.

Ever since then I’ve kept the song in my pocket, something to pull out at the right moment and embiggen the moment. I don’t feel old when I hear it. I don’t think of who I was then. I enjoy what it is, now. I don’t think about the production or the history of white falsetto or the way the 70s reverbed strings owed a debt to Mantovani or any of that. I just flip the pitcher and strut.

So yes. I recommend the BeeGees documentary. It falls apart at the end, when it ascribes the anti-disco backlash to racism and homophobia. No. The“disco sucks” movement, such as it was, had an essential truth: disco sucked. The usual law about 99% of everything being bad.

It was unfair that the BeeGees got swamped by the backlash. It was a pity that their extraordinary talents ended up in the Adult-Contemporary genre, which made them Mom Music. You wish they’d met David Bowie and Iggy Pop and Brian Eno and Florian Schneider in Berlin, because it’s entirely possible they would have created electro-pop-funk with effortless melodies that seemed both obvious and ingenious.

That’s what you take away from the documentary: they were actually brilliant, and we took it for granted.

PS Chuck, whose taste I did not like, went on to be a successful lawyer; decades later I ran into him downtown, as he had an office in the building I would occupy in 2016. I haven’t seen him since. Kent, the funk fan, went on to teach jazz in a college in Texas. Haven't seen him in years, but the last time was at my kitchen table, talking about music.



It's 1910.

Our soaps are so pure, they’re edible.

Hard to say, haven’t looked everywhere.

It’s honest soul with no high perfumes! Just low perfumes and absolutely no adulterations. No more nasty skin sloughing off in meaty strips because the soap maker used too much caustic lye.

Say, where did those fats come from?

Nathaniel Kellogg 'N.K.' Fairbank (1829–1903) was a Chicago industrialist whose company, the N.K. Fairbank Co., manufactured soap as well as animal and baking products in conjunction with the major meat packing houses of northern Illinois.

Fairy soap still exists - just not here in the States.



I mean . . . what?

It’s not the body-building claim - wheat over meat, suuuure - it’s the “pinch of prosperity” that has me baffled.

Nabisco will buy the company in 1928; for now it’s still the original Shredded Wheat company, patents and all.

Milk is good for babies, but cow’s milk is too much and will produce freakishly strong mutant babies:

Yes, but what is it?

It is the most scientific food that has yet been devised.

What does that mean, scientific? Blending arsenic and lead is science. What’s in it?


Actually, it’s a "soluble, dry extract of wheat, malted barley and bicarbonate of potassium."


Are you are it’s not the path to the gateway to the good graces of the good things?

Here’s the charming place where it was made. It’s being redeveloped. They made chocolate there from 1903 to 2010, when ADM shut it down.

“Please read the instructions carefully, or this stuff is really going to suck.”

“There’s a reason.” Yes, and it’s because you’re jumpy and dyspeptic, that’s why. Coffee. You love it, but it gives you problems. So many problems you’re reduced to this stuff. God, life is miserable.

Sympathetic. A usage that’s modified over time.

I don’t know why, but I always like stories like these.

Ernestine Amalie Pauline Röhsler was born on 15 June 1861 to a German-speaking family at Libeň], Bohemia, Austrian Empire, which is now part of the city of Prague, Czech Republic.

Borders in that part of the world tended to be fluid.

Her father, who called his daughter "Tini", was Hans Röhsler. Before working as a shoe maker, he served as an Austrian cavalry officer.

That sounds like those most mittel-Europa description in the 1860s, no?

When Ernestine was three years old, the family moved to Verona. In 1866, at the outbreak of the Austro-Prussian War, the family moved to Prague, where she was schooled at the Ursuline Convent.

Ah, the Austro-Prussian war! I hadn’t thought of that in years. Good ol’ Schleswig-Holstein.

The Austro-Prussian War or Seven Weeks' War (also known as the German Civil War, the Unification War,[4] the War of 1866, the Fraternal War, the Brothers War , in Germany as the German War was a war fought in 1866 between the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia, with each also being aided by various allies within the German Confederation. Prussia had also allied with the Kingdom of Italy, linking this conflict to the Third Independence War of Italian unification. The Austro-Prussian War was part of the wider rivalry between Austria and Prussia, and resulted in Prussian dominance over the German states.

The major result of the war was a shift in power among the German states away from Austrian and towards Prussian hegemony. It resulted in the abolition of the German Confederation and its partial replacement by the unification of all of the northern German states in the North German Confederation that excluded Austria and the other Southern German states, a Kleindeutsches Reich. The war also resulted in the Italian annexation of the Austrian province of Venetia.

Here she is in 1918.


No doubt a Leyendecker illo, since he drew for Arrow, and Arrow was a Cluett brand.

The original factory. Now a storage facility.

“Dainty serving is intimately associated with dainty edibles.” In about twenty years, an advertising campaign would have morphed the word into a synonym for vaginal freshness.

The consummation of the ideal dessert confection.

If that made sense to people, it meant there was indeed something unique and special about these. Their like had not been seen before.


That should suffice. Now we meet this year's cartoonist.

What? you say. I'm new here. What does that mean? Well, every year we follow one cartoonist from the early part of the previous century. Previous years have concerned Scoop, Briggs, and Webster. Now it's another old favorite - and it's going to be quite different in style and manner than the others. I forgot the bio page, so that's next week. SUE ME. Or tip me! Wouldn't hurt.



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