Fletcher Henderson “Sonny” Lott, October 17, 1941 – December 12, 2013

by Steve, May 12th, 2014

SonnySonny Lott (I never knew till today that he was named for Fletcher Henderson; he was always just “Sonny Lott” to everybody I knew) died late last year. Much like Dennis Jones, who died this year, every musician in Iowa City knew Sonny.

I first met him when I was playing bass with a rag-tag group known at the time as “Sky Truthhawk and the I-ones” (Scotty “Sky” Hayward on kalimba, Terry “Truthhawk” Hale on keys and vocals, and anybody else who showed up). Sonny, an ace drummer, played miscellaneous percussion because Terry had a one-man-band set up, playing kick drum and snare with his feet. Sonny didn’t care. He always had a great time, and his attitude was contagious.

We were playing a campaign benefit concert for Karen Kubby, who was probably running for city council for the first time (this was probably 1988, I’m thinking). I don’t think Sonny liked the name of the band. He said to me, “I told Terry we should all wear afro wigs on our butts and rename the band ‘Terry Hale and the Hairy Tails.’”

Yeah, you probably had to be there, and know something about the situation to appreciate how hilarious that was.

I didn’t know Sonny’s history at the time, just that he was always around, always making music. (He played with Patrick Hazel’s legendary Mother Blues back in the mid 70s, where Bo Ramsey also got a start.)

He was also night janitor for a time at the co-op where I was working produce. We’d hang out after work sometimes, just relaxing and bullshitting. Tony D. probably has some stories from those times. Seems like we ended up at Tony’s place more than a few times.

When Totem Soul was active in the late 80s, Sonny played drums with our friendly rivals on the scene, Divin’ Duck. When Nigel fell gravely ill on the afternoon of a gig at Gabe’s, we briefly considered going drumerless but instead called on Sonny. He showed up, played his ass off, and never missed a beat.

It was always about the music for Sonny. In a room full of egos, Sonny would be the one cracking wise, keeping it real, and laying down the groove.

I’m not going to write a song about Sonny, because Greg Brown beat me to it. Here’s Greg and Joe Price (another Mother Blues alum) singing about Sonny at the Mill back in 2010:

Sincere condolences to Sonny’s extended family.

Dennis Jones

by Steve, February 20th, 2014

musicThe last time I saw Dennis Jones was probably some time in the early 2000s. I was in Iowa City to see family with my wife and baby. We were at The Mill to see Dave Moore (whom Dennis had introduced me to in 1984), and Dennis was in his natural habitat behind the sound board, cigarette in hand. We only talked briefly; he was surprised and happy to see me and meet my wife.

Now I wish I’d chatted him up longer, or arranged to meet another day for a drink.

Dennis died February 9, on his 68th birthday.

I first met Dennis when I was in high school and the band I played in, the Sloppy Drunk Blues Band, was making arrangements to play a show at Regina High School circa 1983 or 84. Our drummer’s mom said she knew a guy who did sound and maybe he could help us with some gear. Now, Jhon and I were pretty sure we were pros at sound, having DJed dances since junior high. We even had our own “sound company” (RG Sound) and had t-shirts printed up at the mall t-shirt shop. We rented gear from Brad at Advanced Audio Engineering (later bought out by West Music) and thought our knowledge of PA gear was pretty tight.

But Dennis took us to the next level. Not just mains, but monitors (two monitor mixes!). Mics on everything, not just vocals! A snake so the FOH mixer was actually in the front of house! And he worked cheap, too. He showed up in a loaded step van with his helper Tim and set us up on the cafetorium stage. (Somebody help me with Tim’s last name and current status? He was with Bo Ramsey and the Sliders when they first hit the road in the late 70s, earned the nickname “Dirthead” and never lived down forgetting the mixer on that first tour.) Dennis showed me how to run the board and left.

Pretty soon we found out that Dennis was the sound guy in Iowa City. When we played the Crow’s Nest, a huge old barn, Dennis was there with an even bigger version of the PA we played with that first night, as well as a rag-tag collection of PAR cans and a light board. After high school, I ended up working with Dennis while studying theatre at the University of Iowa 1984-85. After moving out from my freshman dorm, I moved in with Dennis and continued working with him.

I worked all kinds of shows with Dennis (and Tim, and Kurt, who I met at the theatre department and introduced to Dennis), from local acts to Chicago blues acts, to (sometimes dickish) national college rock acts at local clubs and regional festivals. Acts like Taj Mahal, Koko Taylor, John Lee Hooker, Albert Collins, Willie Dixon, Asleep at the Wheel, the Replacements, the Del Fuegos, Billy Bragg, Ronnie Gilbert and Holly Near, countless other folk acts I can’t remember, Clarence Gatemouth Brown, etc. I missed Los Lobos, but will never forget Dennis raving (in a good way) about that show at Gabe’s Oasis, right before they hit it big.

I left town in late 85 and returned in 86, and eventually formed Totem Soul with Jhon and Jay and Nigel in 87-88ish. Of course Dennis was around, and helped when we needed. I still did some shows with him through those years; I don’t really recall the specifics. We bought our own PA for Totem Soul, but ended up using his truck for moving gear from time to time.

Dennis was a character in many ways, and was on the Iowa music scene for decades, starting with Greg Brown in the late 70s (he had a producer credit on the original 1980 release of 44 & 66). When I heard he died, I told Jhon, “I’ve probably go a million stories about Dennis.” And I only knew him for a few of those many years. Here are some of mine, just to get things started. I’d love to collect more here, if anybody wants to contribute.

  • Dennis taught me the trick of putting your coffee cup under the drip instead of waiting for the whole pot to be done. Best life hack ever. Stronger coffee faster. Crucial for the morning after in the fast-paced, late-night world of rock and roll. Sure, it seems obvious in retrospect, but I was just a dumb-ass kid at the time.
  • We were setting up for a show at the Crow’s Nest, and I asked if he had a hammer. “No,” he said, “I can’t keep a hammer in my tool box.” Why not? “Because I might use it.”
  • Jhon recalls that he and I were driving Dennis’s step van back from Parnell (what the hell were we doing in Parnell?), and every time we went over a bump the headlights would go out. Jhon recalls having to reach down by the dimmer switch to jiggle wires to get them back. Dennis: “Oh yeah, I noticed that….” I seem to recall this happening with Dennis driving, and he’d smack the headboard and they’d come back. (Hmm, maybe if he’d had a hammer….)
  • Doing a show at the Stone City Inn, which had the biggest selection of imported beers I had ever seen. The owner told us to just help ourselves to whatever we wanted. I tried some really great stuff. Dennis stuck with domestic, explaining that he had personally introduced import beers to the state of Iowa when he was running the Sanctuary, and was sick and tired of them.
  • Dennis used to complain about Koko Taylor. I don’t remember his specific beef with her, but I think he was just tired of her schtick. We were doing sound for some crappy local band, and he never had much in the way of decent intermission music, so I put on some Koko Taylor instead of something somebody else had put on. “Oh thank god,” said Dennis. “But I thought you hated Koko Taylor?” “No, she’s great!” It’s all relative, eh?
  • Working a folk festival in Stone City (where I met Washboard Chaz), one of the headliners was a European new age guitarist (name withheld to protect the guilty). This guy was a prima donna prick from start to finish. His road manager/hatchet man asked Dennis to borrow his roll of duct tape. Dennis, always accommodating, obliged. The sumbitch apparently used the whole roll to repair his boss’s guitar case and returned the cardboard core to Dennis, who was flummoxed but did not complain (at least not at the time). When I reached out to Chaz a few years back, he actually remembered what pricks these guys were. Dennis, as was his practice, suffered this kind of abuse with great humility, and emerged with his dignity unscathed.

Dennis had his demons to be sure (who doesn’t?), but I don’t know if I’ve ever met a guy with a bigger heart. I’m picturing him driving a step van down an Iowa highway into a golden sunset. Farewell to Dennis: friend, mentor, employer/coworker, landlord/roommate.

In Memory

by Steve, December 23rd, 2012

LuLu, 1995-2012

No creature great or small has ever loved us so fiercely, nor hated everybody else with even greater ferocity.

Rob Ingram

by Steve, November 27th, 2011

A great man passed today. Rest in Peace, Rob. You will be missed.

Im one of those guys who believes that actors and musicians and athletes are a little over-paid, and our teachers and social workers are way under-paid. –Rob Ingram, in a 2009 audio podcast interview.

Thank you, Paul Newman

by Steve, September 28th, 2008

Paul Newman had some great scenes in his unbelievable 53-year cinematic career. Here’s one from Slap Shot (1977) with Strother Martin (in a twist on their roles in Cool Hand Luke). I love the way he acted with his eyes (Not safe for work!).

Besides being a great actor, Newman protested the war in Vietnam, was proud to be on Richard Nixon’s enemy list, and helped save The Nation when it faced economic troubles (here’s John Nichols on Newman in The Nation yesterday), among other things. And he did his own skating in Slap Shot. What more could you want from a guy?

Like Wacky Mommy said about him and Joanne Woodward, “It’s not like they were out taking off their panties in public and having nervous breakdowns in their SUVs.” No, Newman was a class act.

Thank you, Paul Newman for showing the world how to do it right. I’m going to go watch Slap Shot right now.

The death of Portland Metblogs

by Steve, June 18th, 2008

This past winter, I had a little falling out with Metblogs. I’d been writing for them for a while, when BOOM! Metblogs central decided to relaunch the site with a plethora of technical issues. As a technologist, I found that annoying.

But what really got to me (and a bunch of other writers) was the new registration requirement for comments. A couple of us were summarily “fired” by Metblogs honcho Sean Bonner (I subsequently had my account re-enabled) for complaining about this, and a bunch of others quit in disgust.

Ugly words were exchanged between the rump of the Portland Metblogs crew and those publicly critical of the changes. Talk immediately began of starting up something to replace Portland Metblogs, with total local autonomy, to replace what was once a lively discussion forum.

As I suspected it would, Portland Metblogs has been dying a long, slow public death ever since. New posts are rare. Comments even rarer. Portland Metblogs has long since faded into irrelevance in the Portland blogosphere.

I made one attempt to spark things up, and proposed positioning the site as one of public journalism. Though respondents to my poll overwhelmingly supported the idea of public journalism, the idea went over like a lead balloon with a couple MB stalwarts. They clearly didn’t understand the idea of public journalism vs. social networking, and certainly didn’t appreciate me rocking their little boat.

It was pretty much at that point that I decided I wasn’t doing myself any favors by continuing to contribute to the site. And it’s only gone downhill since then.

Now, just over three months later, it looks like a group of former Portland Metblogs contributors (including “captains” Betsy Richter and dieselboi) have started their own site. With open comments.

There could still be hope for Metblogs. My suggestions of public journalism, open comments and revenue sharing to attract quality writers were met with hostility when I floated them before. Metblogs could be a voice in the Portland digital media milieu. But most likely it will quietly fade further into irrelevance.

Poli Chavez R.I.P.

by Steve, December 7th, 2007
Jugo de Piña

Before I had kids and became obsessive about school politics and hockey, I used to play music. The last group I played with before laying down my saxophone was Poli Chavez y Sus Coronados. The Coronados were an innovator of the “Tex Mex” sound in San Diego, and Poli brought the band’s cumbia, ranchera and conjunto rhythms with him to Portland in 1978.

I met Poli through his son in 1996 or 1997, and played a few Quinceañeras, weddings and anniversary parties with the band. Poli’s book was thick; there were probably a hundred or more well-worn charts in the alto sax book he handed me at my first rehearsal. Most of the songs were standards, but I’d never played any of them. After one rehearsal and one gig basically sight reading, I begged him to let me take the alto book out of his sight and photocopy some of the songs I really needed to practice, like the classic Rico Mambo. He grudgingly let me take it, and I still have my copies.

The Portland version of the Coronados was a family band. I replaced his son on alto sax. Another son played tenor sax, and his son-in-law played trumpet.

Though Poli was something of a legend in the world of Tex Mex music, few in the Portland Anglo community knew about him. Their best chance to have heard him was the annual Cinco de Mayo festival at Waterfront Park, where he was a mainstay. The last time I worked with him was on the main stage there in 1997.

Napoleon “Poli” Chavez passed away in 2003. I missed it at the time, and only found out when searching for some of his recordings online the other day. My sincerest condolences go out to his large extended family, especially the guys I worked with. Poli was a larger-than-life figure, and touched the lives of many people, myself included.

After the break, there’s a photo montage tribute, featuring songs from his 1976 LP “Mi Nueva Ilucion.”
Read the rest of this entry »

So it Goes.

by Steve, May 8th, 2007

You’d be hard-pressed to find a eulogy of Kurt Vonnegut Jr. that doesn’t include that phrase, so I thought I’d get it out of the way in the title. Considering the body of work he leaves behind, I think it is appropriate.

Growing up in Iowa City, you pretty much have to be a fan. Vonnegut taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop from 1965-1967, and left an indelible imprint both on the Writers’ Workshop and the community. He lived in a big old farm house at the cobble-stoned end of Van Buren Street, just off Brown Street. Later, after he’d left to go teach at Harvard, the house was turned into a rental. I don’t know when it started, but an institution took hold that was beyond anyone’s control.

Each May Day, the grounds of the house became the scene of the biggest party in town. The “Vonnegut House” became legendary, not for the kind of party that once drew the likes of Saul Bellow and Jose Donoso, but for all-night, beer- and psychedelic-fueled, shout at the moon craziness. I was surprised by how well organized the thing was, despite having a life of its own. Bands played, including mine in 1988 and 1989. There was a beer trailer. A giant bonfire. Somehow, the huge old barn that served as stage never caught fire.

The cops would just block off the cul de sac and let the party run its course. Some time in the ’80s, the house was sold, and the tradition ended. The new owners wanted nothing to do with the tradition.

A tradition which, of course, had nothing to do with Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

I came to love Vonnegut when I was working as a waiter at a steak house in Coralville, housed in an old power plant along the Iowa River. Between shifts, I devoured his novels in chronological order. Even though many of them were written before I was born, they seemed to fit the zeitgeist in Iowa City at the time. They probably still do (I wouldn’t know; I moved away in 1989).

I only knew the man through his work and his imprint on my home town. I have enjoyed reading all the eulogies on the Web. Salon has a nice compilation of remembrances from some who encountered him in real life, capturing a hint of who he was as a human. The L.A. Times published an excellent obituary. (There are many more out there; too many to list here.)

When Vonnegut came back to Iowa City in 1989 to speak, he would only speak to students at the Workshop. This annoyed the hipsters in town to no end. The light his legacy cast across Iowa City was ultimately larger than he could have known. His influence on my writing and world view is immense, and the world is a poorer place with his passing.

So it goes.