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Hang A Crooked Number: Now Worth Nothing

Today marks the start of another Mets season. To celebrate the occasion, for a limited time you can join another lost cause at minimal cost. Which is to say, no cost. From March 31 through April 4, Hang A Crooked Number is on sale at Amazon for the considerable markdown of 100 percent. If I’ve done my math right, that means it’s free. As in, zero dollars. And zero cents.

If you’ve missed/ignored my many posts about this novel since it came out last year, this is Hang A Crooked Number in a nutshell:

Backstop lives a double life, and both are crumbling. He is a minor league catcher and an operative in training for The Moe Berg Society, a secret intelligence group that uses baseball as a front for its spy work. The mysterious disappearance of Backstop’s fellow trainee, Mark, has plunged him into a career-threatening slump. He gets one last chance at redemption when his handler asks him to investigate a connection between rumors of a mole and The Scouts, a faction of old-school spies hell-bent on seizing leadership of The Society. Backstop’s mission is complicated by his new roommate, The Swing, an aging slugger working on a major league comeback, and by Brooke, a tenacious reporter who suspects Backstop holds the key to her investigation into Mark’s disappearance. With one eye on his plummeting batting average and the other on the mounting casualties of his mission, Backstop attempts to unravel a conspiracy that could change the game forever before he unravels himself.

I know many people believe that spending money for anything on the internet is an affront to their human rights. Such folks contend that their function as consumers is so important that it is above such piddling concerns as paying people who make the things they consume. Under normal circumstances, I’m not inclined to encourage such beliefs. But I would also like people to know that Hang  A Crooked Number exists, and one way to do that is to give it out for free. There are other ways to do this, but they involve the spending of money that my family insists is better spent on shoes and rent. So, free it is.

I recognize that people who don’t want to pay for things on the internet also don’t like it when they’re asked to do anything on the internet. (I’m not sure what these people do like to do, other than scream that video games are art and tell other people to die in fires on Twitter.) However, if you choose to download this book that I worked on for years and you find you enjoy it, I ask that you at least consider giving the book a few stars on its Amazon page. And if you’re feeling really generous, maybe leave a nice review. Stars and reviews mean a lot to Amazon, so the more you leave, the more often my book comes up in searches for other books and hammocks and whatever the hell else Amazon sells. Damned if I can figure it out, but Bezos works in mysterious ways his wonders to perform.

Thanks.

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Late Night 10th Anniversary Special, 1992

Last year, David Letterman “celebrated” 30 years as a late night talk show host. “Celebrated” gets quotation marks because he didn’t mark the occasion at all, really. Even this year, when Letterman entered his 20th year of hosting The Late Show on CBS, the milestone was barely noted at all. Bill Murray (first guest on Letterman’s NBC and CBS shows) made an appearance as Liberace for some reason, but that was Letterman’s only concession to the date. He apparently loathes anniversary specials and is now at a place, career-wise, where he doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to do. Like work on Fridays, or answer questions about not wanting to do an anniversary special. (This Times article on Letterman’s 30th year in late night features zero quotes from the man himself.)

That’s a shame, because it was an anniversary special that first exposed me to David Letterman as a young lad. I assume so, anyway. As a kid, I never would have been allowed to stay up late enough to see Late Night as it aired. I had no real chance to see any of Letterman’s genius until I caught a prime time anniversary special full of clips. When I saw Letterman crushing things with a pneumatic press and throwing things off a five-story building, I thought to myself, in my own little kid way, “This is what TV was made for.”

Whilst scouring my VHS archives recently, I found a tape containing the Late Night 10th Anniversary Special, which aired February 6, 1992. This is a unique artifact for many reasons. Johnny Carson’s retirement was imminent and Letterman had already been officially passed over as his replacement. This, plus a decade of accumulated slights by NBC and parent company GE, made it abundantly clear he would leave the network when his contract expired in 1993.

Previous anniversary specials were more befitting Late Night’s weird, almost community access sensibility. Take, for example, the fourth anniversary special from 1986, wherein Dave, Paul Shaffer’s band, and a crew of technicians conduct the show from the cabin of a 747 flying from Miami to New York. Not a flight they’ve chartered, but a scheduled flight, full of confused, oblivious passengers who find themselves the unwitting audience (and occasionally, victims) of this program.

Then, take a look at the 10th anniversary special below, filmed at Radio City Music Hall with Rockettes, an all-star band, and huge studio audience. It’s almost an audition for the spiffier, toned-down show he’d soon do at 11:30.

Letterman killed The Talk Show Host by creating a talk show in which the host very obviously thought the very idea of a talk show was bullshit. It is strange to see him in this 10th anniversary special, attempting to undo that killing, in his own way. He even seems genuine when thanking the audience for waiting on line to get inside.

For all of the Picture Day propriety, though, there is still plenty of weirdness on display. Observe the studio audience and note that it is packed to the gills with mooks. From the outfits worn and the reactions hooted, you’d think it was Howard Stern on stage. I swear I spotted at least three dudes in Boomer Esiason jerseys. This serves as a reminder that during their respective 1980s heydays, Letterman and Stern were often spoken of in the same breath, comedy-wise, as being (each in their own way) purveyors of edgy, take-no-prisoners laffs.

You will also see a brief appearance by Bill Murray, Letterman’s first ever guest and kindred spirit in practicing the fine art of fake sincerity. Live Stupid Pet Tricks make an appearance as well, but the real treat here is to see the clips from old shows and be reminded of just how strange Late Night was. Try not to think about how, because of Letterman’s acrimonious split from NBC, we’ll probably never see these clips outside of YouTube again. (And while you’re at it, try not to think about how we’ll never see Conan O’Brien’s greatest stuff for the same reason.)

In the final half hour, we receive another reminder of how many amazing bands Letterman had on his show, bands that never would have appeared on The Tonight Show, or anywhere else on TV at the time, for that matter.

This leads into a special live rendition of “Like A Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan, backed by a band with an insane assemblage of musicians. I remember watching this as a kid and cringing because I hated Bob Dylan. Now I watch it and…I still kinda cringe. I’ve tried with Dylan, I really have, but me and him are never gonna happen. Since he’s the most influential songwriter of his age, I’m willing to concede the problem lies entirely with me, not him. I blame the abundance of harmonica in his tunes. I’ve reached the point in my life where I actually enjoy some of his songs, but once the harmonica kicks in, I check out. No harmonica here, but Dylan’s voice, ew boy…I think I’d take creepy Victoria’s Secret Dylan over this.

And as always, for you weirdos who like commercials, here’s a collection of ads that aired during this broadcast. Featuring: The hilariously failed Reebok “Dan & Dave” campaign, an NBC-4 News “special report” on “Sex & Sports,” a promo for a Matlock movie where he visits “a town that makes its money on murder!”, and a slew of rock-stupid Budweiser spots.

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A Few Minutes with 120 Minutes, 1991

Recently rediscovered within the Vast and Dusty Scratchbomb VHS Archives: A nearly complete episode of 120 Minutes, MTV’s “alternative music” program. This aired December 15, 1991, and provides some insight into what exactly constituted alternative music (at least as far as MTV was concerned) during the waning days of the First Bush administration.

I’ve chopped this up into three pieces to ease playback and preserve some of the flow of the original. The first half hour of the show is missing from my tape, so we pick it up with host Dave Kendall introducing a clip from a live Cure pay-per-view special. I remember more than one friend ordering that special and borrowing the tape from them, then trying to figure out a way to copy it. Never cracked the code before I had to return it.

Though this apisode aired and was presumably taped after Nirvana “broke,” you’ll notice very little Seattle stuff here. Grunge would soon dominate the 120 Minutes playlist, but during this particular episode the videos leaned heavily toward industrial (Ministry, Nitzer Ebb), British shoegaze, and indie rock like Urge Overkill.

If you watched that first video, you heard Mr. Kendall tease a mini-documentary on The Clash, and here it is, narrated by Kurt Loder. There’s some amazing live footage here that I’ve never seen anywhere else, from the band’s early days, their 1982 concert at Shea Stadium, and lots of stuff in between. Also, some interesting testimonials from Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, and Paul Simonon.

And here’s the last half hour of the episode, which contains some curious Christmas music from Hoodoo Gurus and The Wedding Present. Stick around past the end credits to catch an episode of the weird animated omnibus Liquid Television. This show does not seem quite as mind blowing to me as it did back when I was in junior high, but then what does, really?

Finally, if you’re one of those weirdos like me who enjoys watching old commercials, here’s a playlist with ads that aired during this episode, plus a few spots from 1992 I found on the same tape. Highlights include:

  • Promo for MTV’s Best of 1991 programming featuring Cindy Crawford and background music of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which is as much 1991 as is legally allowed by law.
  • In the same dated vein, a promo for an issue of People Magazine that promises the lowdown on all the dirt from the set of Hook.
  • Casio Rapmaster keyboard, which looks and sounds exactly like what you think it does.
  • An unsettling Christmas-themed commercial for Playboy.
  • The now-forgotten TurboGrafx 16 gaming console.
  • Weird wrap-around promo for the band The Ocean Blue, which starts with an ad asking you to stick around the real ad.
  • A Super Nintendo commercial featuring a fresh-faced Paul Rudd.
  • Strange ad for Introspect jeans; can’t decide if this is misogynistic or simply dumb.
  • Foot Locker spot featuring Karl Malone’s LA Gear Mailmans, which, yes, was a thing.
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Lower East Side (Mostly), 1996

I’ve written in this space about how when I was in college I used to wander through different neighborhoods in New York City, absorbing all the sights I could. Sadly, I have very little documentary evidence of my trips, unless you count my memory. However, I recently rediscovered a whole pile of old photos I took back then, and included in this pile are some pics from a walk I took through the Lower East Side and the East Village in May 1996. In my head, 1996 seems like yesterday. In reality it’s almost 18 years ago. These pictures make that time seem even longer.

In terms of pure aesthetics, these pictures are not very good. They were taken with a crummy point-and-shoot that had no zoom. This made it very difficult to get the shots I really wanted, because that would have required standing in the middle of traffic. So I’d either have to take very close shots or stand across the street and get wide-angle shots of entire blocks while cars raced in front of me. I usually chose the latter.

Picture quality is further compromised by the fact that all shots were developed at a Genovese on 8th Street. Genovese (one of many NY stores no longer with us) was a drug store that had a photo developing department that employed very few Ansel Adams.

Despite these considerable deficiencies, I want to share these pictures because most of the sights they captured no longer exist. I look at these pictures now and I can remember what the Lower East Side felt like in the mid-90s, when it hadn’t quite become hip, and certainly hadn’t become insanely expensive. If you strolled down Rivington Street on a Sunday afternoon, it wasn’t full of people stumbling their way to brunch. It had an unsettling ancient quiet that was impossible in most of Manhattan. The only sounds you heard were old signs swaying in the breeze and neglected buildings slowly crumbling.

I try not to be one of those insufferable types who longs for a city where “realness” was exemplified by nonstop murder and romantic heroin addictions. However, I look at these pics now, particularly the ones taken on Rivington Street, deep in the heart of what is now the most insanely expensive part of the Lower East Side, and I wonder what happened to the folks who got pushed out by the unstoppable wave of gentrification and development.

One of these pics shows a huge lot on Suffolk Street. You used to see many lots in the area like this, stretches of nothing that were reclaimed by local residents to be ersatz community gardens, junk yards, and flea markets. You can’t quite make it out in the photo, but there was a shack adorned with Puerto Rican flag insignia, whose occupant played a faint salsa soundtrack at all hours. The site is now occupied by a row of very ugly and very expensive condos.

When I took these pictures, the gentrification of the Lower East Side and East Village had already begun in earnest. It was confined to very specific blocks, but a sharp eye could see that it would soon creep everywhere.

Sometimes, you didn’t even need to look very hard. It was right there in front of you. In one photo, a repair shop on West 4th and the Bowery is being converted into the Bowery Bar. The mural on the wall of the building next door is being painted over to mark the occasion, an artsy non sequitur replaced by an enormous advertisement. You can literally see both the working class and bohemia replaced by luxury.

I realize that if you didn’t live in New York back then or don’t live here now, none of this means anything to you. In an effort to display just how much has changed, I’ve paired the old photos with new ones I took recently at the same spots. I did my best to recreate the perspective of the original pics, though in many cases changes in the landscape made precision impossible. And of course, there are the differences in lighting that result from May sky vs. November sky, and the differences in overall look between cheap point-and-shoot and fancy digital camera.

Some sites changed little, synagogues and churches mostly. At St. Patrick’s on Mulberry (the original St. Patrick’s), even the road work sawhorses look the same. Most of these spots have changed, though, enormously. It almost doesn’t matter if that is a good or bad thing, because the change has happened and cannot be unchanged regardless.

While taking the new pictures, I stumbled on a bunch of storefronts that had the look of turn-of-the-20th-century, florid serifed lettering and striped awnings. I thought it was an affectation adopted by boutiques, but then remembered that a TV series was being filmed down here, one set in the early 1900s.

The bustling squalor of that time seems quaint to us now, though life was tough and cheap for the people who lived in the Lower East Side back then. Few shed tears when the residents of the 90s were slowly pushed out for luxury condos and bars. Perhaps one day we’ll see them as picturesque enough to tell their stories. Continue reading

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Jean Shepherd on New York Baseball Fans, 1963

On the way to work this morning, I listened to a Jean Shepherd radio show from April 1963 in which he discussed the attitude of New York baseball fans in general and Yankees fans in particular. The reason I listen to 50-year-old radio shows is because of how amazingly prescient Shep was, especially when discussing philosophy or commenting on media and show biz. He was no less insightful on the “lesser” topic of sports and fandom.

In this clip, you’ll hear Shep (a Chicago native and lifelong White Sox fan) talk about how nutty the WIN NOW! attitude of New York fans looks to outsiders. He relates the grumbles of a Yankee fan friend who couldn’t stand the thought of his team not winning a pennant in 1959. He also shares memories of a trip to Yankee Stadium with his old pal and fellow Chicagoan Shel Silverstein, when the two of them witnessed Mickey Mantle get booed for the audacity of not hitting a home run that afternoon. Shep provides a passable Shel Silverstein impression to boot.

Shep tops things off with some thoughts on the then-fledgling Mets, the real reason the Dodgers’ and Giants’ move to California was lamented by the press (their gravy train stopped running), and how the New York WIN NOW idea extends to all sports.

I find this fascinating because it is a contemporary account of what fan attitudes and fan experiences were like during the late 1950s and early 1960s. In our cemented memories, this era is rendered in Ken Burns-ian sepiatone nostalgia. But when Shep was speaking, the era was still The Present, and thus could be discussed in an unvarnished way.

When studying most aspects of history we accept that, in order to really understand a time, you have to get as close to contemporary accounts as humanly possible. When it comes to sports, however, we often let ourselves be swayed by myth-making. That makes this Shep clip even more rare, and valuable. I hope you enjoy it.

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The Lost Art of the Anniversary Special, Featuring Nazi Donald Duck

I know that the readers of Scratchbomb are students of genuine American folklore. Therefore, this will be of interest you: A Donald Duck 50th Anniversary special from 1984.

Back in those days, television loved to pay tribute to beloved pop culture figures via one-hour programs, during which the figure in question was feted by whatever random celebrities could be assembled. The pinnacle of this art was, of course, the Looney Tunes 50th Anniversary Special. Produced by Lorne Michaels’ Broadway Video, it remains one of the most amazing things humans have made. This was just one example; in the mid-80s, it seemed every three months brought another such tribute to the airwaves.

People tuned in by the millions to watch these shows because back then, if you wanted to catch a “highlight reel” for I Love Lucy or The Honeymooners, this was your only recourse. Nowadays, if you want to see someone’s greatest moments, you can search for them on YouTube and you don’t have to pay Cher or Jeff Goldblum to punch up the proceedings.

However, back in 1984, the heyday of such programming, a special about Donald Duck all but demanded to be MC’ed and narrated by Dick Van Dyke, who also has some split animation/live action bits with the guest of honor. As in other such specials of its time, Donald is further celebrated by testimonials from a polyglot selection of stars seemingly picked out of a hat: Donna Summer, John Ritter, Kenny Rogers, Henry Winkler, and Andy Warhol, who is seen sketching out his own illustrated salute.

andy warhol + donald duckThe special also contains an enormous amount of old cartoon footage that is, I’m sure, locked up in a vault somewhere along with Walt’s frozen head, never to be seen again. For instance, a cartoon meant to promote postwar “understanding” between America and its neighbors to the south, with that understanding achieved by drinking cachaça and dive bombing bikini-clad girls on a beach with some kind of magic carpet. But that pales in comparison to a war-time short wherein Donald has a nightmare he lives in Nazi Germany and has to assemble bombs all day to the tune of Spike Jones’ “In Der Fuhrer’s Face.” So if you ever wondered what Donald Duck covered in swastikas would look like, wonder no more.

As with my Halloween presentation, the Donald Duck special is presented here with commercials included, intended to be viewed as one would have viewed it back when it was aired. (Source tape comes from a rebroadcast in 1985.) Again, the quality is not fantastic, but some sacrifices are needed to bring you Nazi Donald Duck.

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Hang A Crooked Number: Now At Insultingly Low Prices!

cover_art_insideHey there, cheapskates! Perhaps you’ve considered purchasing a copy of my book Hang A Crooked Number—guaranteed to be the year’s best novel about baseball, spies, and failure—but balked at its retail price. Personally, I believe $2.99 is more than reasonable for a full-length novel written by one actual human, but I also recognize that ideas about what constitutes “reasonable price” has changed considerably in our modern age, what with all the computers and hula hoops and fax machines. I also recognize that nobody knows who the hell I am and thus may need extra incentive to drop any amount of cash on my weird ideas.

So, for a limited time, I am slashing the price on my novel. From now through November 15, Hang A Crooked Number can be yours for the frankly insulting price of 99 cents. This is literally the least amount of money I can charge for it without making it free altogether. (I have just enough dignity to not do that.)

If you want a better idea of what 99 cents buys you, check out excerpts of the novel at Stymie Magazine and The Classical.

If that does it for ya, you can purchase Hang A Crooked Number for the low, low, insanely low “price” of 99 cents at Amazon, Apple, Smashwords, or sort-of direct from me in either epub or PDF form.

Remember: If you likes what you read, I’d sure appreciate it if you’d leave a star-filled review on Amazon or Goodreads. I know, I’m asking you to leave a review after you paid a whole 99 cents for this book. A thousand pardons, sirrah, but I need the scraps from your table to survive. Please take pity upon me, a lowly beggar.

A potentially explosive collection of verbal irritants