Can you tell me how to get… ?

Back in 1979, as a five year-old, I appeared in a brief Sesame Street segment– one of those interstitial bits that doesn’t take place on ‘the Street’ or involve any of the signature characters, but instead is shot from real life and generally has a straightforwardly educational premise (‘real-life films’ is what these are called in Sesame Street fan parlance, I’ve learned). In my bit, a group of kids go to visit a printing press. I presume that many educational and edifying tidbits are also learned along the way, although I can hardly remember anything about it now (more on this below). I’ve never actually seen the segment, and had come to suspect over the years that perhaps I’d fabricated the whole thing in my mind (unlikely) or that it had never in fact aired (more likely). But then, over the holidays, I was talking to my uncle and he suddenly mentioned having seen it– I guess he was watching Sesame Street with my little cousin and the segment suddenly popped on. This spurred me on to track down some info about the segment – or better yet, footage – using the vast resources available along the Information SuperHighway.

My first stop was the Muppet Wiki, which includes user-submitted synopses of lots and lots of Sesame Street episodes. Unfortunately, the episode guide is very much incomplete and misses large chunks of the ’79 and ’80 seasons. When I couldn’t find my segment in the episodes covered from this season, I began to leaf through later seasons, hoping that I would find it as a re-run. This process soon became obsessive. An hour later, having paged through 12 full seasons, I tore myself away, by now immersed in the era when hip-hop culture began to infiltrate ‘the Street’ and kids started sporting high-top fades. By this point, my mind was whooshing from scanning hundreds of summaries of various skits, some of which started to sound like zen riddles and/or fortune cookies:

  • A man illustrates ‘between’ in various situations throughout his work day.
  • Why can’t we see the wind?
  • A man laughs out loud as an alligator uses the telephone to call his wife – then he eats the phone booth.
  • A man talks about going to the city, without noticing he’s walking right through it.
  • Everyone has the same feelings, “No Matter What.” Kids of all types play with a huge beach ball.

That’s a good question about the wind. Anyway, at this point I had to face the music that the Muppet Wiki wasn’t going to hold any answers for me, so I moved on to Muppet Central Forum. This has a certain section called ‘The Official “I’m looking for/trying to remember a sketch” thread’, where I posted a comment describing my episode. Several helpful people wrote back with recollections of episodes involving printing and/or newspapers, but none turned out to be mine. I continue to get email updates any time someone posts to this thread, even when it has nothing to do with me– for example:

Does anyone else recall an episode (from the early 1970s) in which one of the adults spots Mr. Snuffleupagus on Sesame Street? Snuffy was wearing striped pajamas at the time, which causes confusion when Big Bird asks where his friend has gone. (The adult character agrees that Snuffy is real, but mistakes the stripes for a natural body covering; when Big Bird tries to correct the description, he gets ignored as usual.)

If you remember this show…could you please tell me (1) which season it aired in, and (2) who the “Snuffy sighter” was. I’m thinking it’s Bob but I could be wrong!

Anyway, the upshot of this story is that I still haven’t found the episode I appeared in. But, the experience of scouring my mind for tell-tale details of the episode made me think again about some weird aspects of human memory: when I try to remember the filming, I get two distinct mental snapshots (walking down a rural Vermont road to the printer; a moment of running forward excitedly towards the camera with two other kids at the printer’s). Did these actual moments happen? If so, why do I remember them and not a snapshot from, say, 20 seconds later? Or, are they just amalgamations of dozens or hundreds of different moments that happened over the course of the afternoon?

Final comment: I happened to talk about this whole Sesame Street hunt with about four people, and two of them happened to be Canadians by sheer coincidence. Both Canadians reported hating Sesame Street as children, which I found shocking. One explained that the street itself looked too dingy and rundown to be what he would have considered a safe place in the context of 70s suburban Toronto.

Photo: Stevie Wonder’s unlikely cameo that yielded a version of ‘Superstition’.

Revisiting Koh-i-noor

Today, we walked past the same buildings in Vršovice that I’d photographed way back when for the Fluffy Spectrum post:

In the original post, I misidentified these as ministry buildings, but one of my students subsequently pointed out that they are in fact (and this is much more believable) the headquarters of the art supply company Koh-i-noor. (The ministry buildings are behind them and look predictably institutional). This is how they looked back in mid-June, when the world was young, the blog was but two weeks old, the sun was shining, and Felix had just come home from the hospital nine days earlier.

Here’s how they looked this afternoon:

Poor technicolor dream buildings… you never really had a chance against the all-enveloping gray gloom of Prague’s February.

The late winter months have been problematic in every ‘four season’ city I’ve lived in, but they seem particularly brutal here. Somehow, every year at this point, I become convinced that there are far-reaching reasons why I should leave this part of the world and return to San Francisco… reasons which, I’m convinced, go well beyond the weather and in fact have a deep structural underlying basis. But then, eventually, spring arrives and I forget about all these ideas instantly (and the instantly aspect really can’t be stressed enough). This year, I’m holding out against this feeling, but it’s still creeping up on me… and I definitely got a melancholic glimmer while passing the poor beset spectrum buildings.

While we were away in the U.S., Prague got its worst snow fall in 30 years, the last of which actually fell the day before we returned. Clambering through the gloom to get to work the next morning, I was puzzled to see large areas of sidewalk blocked off with police tape and homemade signs saying (here is how I understood the signs with my fluency in Czech): ‘Warning: AFFFIUADFFHH SKKKKERWED snow and ice WEEEERWWW WEFWEWEEEE’. It turns out that giant masses of snow and ice had been sliding off rooftops and literally killing passersby below. Good times! Apparently, it’s a combination of (a) super-heavy snowfall, (b) peaked roofs built at too steep an angle and (c) an unusual sequence of extreme precipitation followed by sudden warmth that’s responsible.

After the falling ice floes claimed their first victim (‘a man in Ostrava’ as he’s invariably referred to), it subsequently came to light that Prague by-laws apparently hold property owners liable for any such injuries experienced by pedestrians. This revelation has made things almost more dangerous, as you suddenly had random shmoes up on rooftops hurling the snow off their properties as fast as possible in order to rid themselves of legal liability.

Here’s to a mercifully short winter, and the return of little fluffy clouds over warm Koh-i-noor.

The Basement Tapes

A month or so ago, I heard a strange version of “Nothing Was Delivered,” which I knew as a Byrds song, and was immediately transfixed by the simple boogie-woogie piano riff and the all-around lackadaisical style — not to mention the bizarre and earnest lyrics (“Nothing was delivered/And I tell this truth to you/Not out of spite nor anger/But simply because it’s true.”). When listening to the Byrd’s version I’d always assumed there was some religious angle, and never quite realized, as I did now, that it was really just a song about somebody who ripped a bunch of people off and how he had better come up with the money fast.

I did a little research and figured out that it was on “The Basement Tapes,” something I had always imagined to be a giant, many-disc compilation of bootleg Dylan stuff — I think my brother had one of the later, larger bootleg sets, and I had never realized that there was this separate double-album released in 1975.

There are a million theories about how these songs came to be recorded (and then not released for eight years while bootlegs proliferated, during which Rolling Stone published a demand that they be released). My favorite “origin story” for what is probably the most heavily-mythologized recording session in American musical history is the following: in the summer of 1967, Dylan owed Columbia Records fourteen more songs, and recorded these songs (and many more) with the Band (minus Levon Helm) on the cheap, in the basement of a house that became famous as “Big Pink,” to fulfill his contractual obligation (and while he recovered from a pretty serious motorcycle accident). Then, when he ended up signing an extension with Columbia, he no longer wanted to release these unpolished and off-the-cuff recordings, so instead he distributed them to various other artists, who recorded and released the songs. Hence the Byrds’ versions of “Nothing Was Delivered” and “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” Peter Paul & Mary’s “Too Much of Nothing,” multiple versions of “This Wheel’s On Fire,” (including one that became the theme song for “Absolutely Fabulous”!) etc.

Of course, these deliberately stripped-down and rustic tunes turned out to be some of Dylan’s (and The Band’s) best work. I am utterly blown away, and more than a little ashamed that it took me this long to catch on. Right now I can’t think of a more consistently great record, let alone a double album. The songs that first seemed like filler now, on the 30th listening or whatever I’m at, seem just as great as the more immediately-accessible ones. I was initially drawn in by the “going to seed” and general dissolution themes (on songs such as “Goin to Acapulco,” “Too Much of Nothing” or “Tears of Rage”). But I am now just as enthralled by some of the less weighty songs, such as the hilarious “Clothesline Saga” which is a shaggy-dog tale about a family hanging up some clothes to dry. I’ve always had a slight resistance to what I saw as Dylan’s santimonious tone, and these songs are completely free of it.

Without getting any deeper into a track-by-track “golly they’re great!” post (which has been done many times before), I’ll just note that the songs all have an amazing, hymn-like simplicity that stands in stark contrast to a lot of the music, good and bad, that was coming out in 1967.

I love the thought of Dylan and The Band holing up and playing cover after cover of American traditionals, until they got to the point where they were just writing their own versions of these songs. I’m now reading Greil Marcus’ book “The Old, Weird America” which is largely about this record, where he ties the songs to the America captured in Harry Smith’s Folkways anthology — the weird mythic world of misfits, con men and murderers. It makes a lot of music I’ve loved for years seem strangely brittle and two-dimensional.

Finally, there is great appeal to me in the idea (which may or may not actually be true) that it was exactly because Dylan thought he was just banging out some stuff to fulfill a contract that let him realize his full potential (and perhaps avoid the sanctimony). I can’t wait to sink my teeth into the 5-disc sets with little song fragments and covers of “People Get Ready” and Johnny Cash and Hank Williams songs!

Sinister Minister

My wife, baby kid and I have been on the road for nearly a month now and are flying back to Prague this evening. Currently, we’re holed  up in my hometown of Belmont, MA, a town which – despite its close proximity to Boston – was once declared ‘Region’s Most Boring Town’ in a Boston Globe headline that I gleefully clipped out of the paper’s metro region section as a spiteful teenager. Belmont is so boring that, until recently, there was a law forbidding the sale of any booze within the teeny town confines, but that’s a blog rant for another day…

One of the poignant aspects of being home is all the Beavis-and-Butthead-type memories from junior high years that had nearly vanished from memory but come flooding back once I walk around the old neighborhood. This being my first trip back as a parent, these incidents somehow seem all the more comically juvenile and parochial in juxtaposition with my current ‘mature’ state.

Case in point: a few days ago, I walked by the bus stop where I used to idle away interminable periods waiting for the bus to come take me to more enlightened, boozing neighboring places like Cambridge and Boston. The site of the old bus stop immediately brought back a blazing hot summer day in 1989 or so when I was waiting around and spotted a big fat debauched-looking metalhead guy crossing the street with a brown paper bag under his arm and a weird dazed-yet-exalted expression on his face. ‘Hey, man,’ he cheerfully regaled me from halfway across the street. “What town is this?

Always a good sign, I think as I yell back “Belmont!”

“Belmont,” he says, wincing slightly. “Last thing I remember, I was drinking at the Aku-Aku last night and musta blacked out…”

The Aku-Aku was an incredibly depressing-looking tiki bar located in cement mall in a corner of Cambridge near the Belmont border. It had a spinning plastic sign picturing the Easter Island statues that people had thrown innumerable rocks through. The Aku-Aku figures prominently in Caroline Knapp’s tell-all memoir of her years as a Boston-dwelling alcoholic, Drinking, A Love Story.

“… Next thing I know,” continues the metalhead, “I wake up and some fat bitch is on top of me, going… (mimes coitus)… so I said, (with great vigor:) ‘Get the fuck off me, give me some beer, some money and some sandwiches!'” At this point, he happily flashes open his paper bag to show me some  beer and sandwiches lurking inside.

I spend a few minutes talking to this jolly reveler while we wait for the bus, eventually getting onto the subject of music and the Boston-area punk/metal band Bullet Lavolta in particular. He mentions being a big fan as well, and adds that they’ve had a big influence on his band. “Oh, what are you guys called?” I ask. “Sinister Minister,” he answers with great delectation.

At the time, this little meeting provided a much-appreciated rebuttal to the notion (apparently supported by Globe reportage) that nothing of interest EVER happened in this neighborhood. For a while, I would wait for the bus and look at the houses across the street, wondering where this sandwich-and-beer-dispensing seductress might live.

(Photo: corners of Belmont and Grove streets. Above-described incident happened in the left-hand corner of this scene).

Obecní Dům Cherub

dobre_dan 202

I’m really fond of our flat here in Prague (and, yes, I know that ‘flat’ sounds pretentious to my American readers, but that’s just how we do things here, so it sounds normal to me now… much like cooing ‘ciao’ to acquaintances). It’s big, cheap, in the attic of a villa and has all sorts of strange quirks and features. Unfortunately, it’s also a deathtrap-in-waiting for our young son as soon as he gets older and starts moving around, with splintery beams, abrupt ledges and – worst of all– a spiral staircase with no bannister. So, facing the reality that we’ll have to move out once our ticking time-bomb of a child gets older, I’m already starting to nostalgize the place a bit. Consider this the beginning of a series: ‘Weird, Quirky Old Aspects Of Our Flat That I’ll Miss Once We’ve Had To Move.’

WQOAOOFTIMOWHTM #1: Obecní Dům Cherub

With all the hurly-burly of finishing The Book and my subsequent visit to an Alpine sanatorium, I forgot to mention that the wife and I had a chance to go to Obecní Dům (Prague’s Municipal House) two weeks ago for a friend’s upscale birthday party. Obecní Dům is one of the architectural landmarks of Czech’s brief one-of-the-ten-richest-countries-in-the-world phase between the wars: Art Noveau masterpiece, houses works by Alfons Mucha, blah blah blah…


This was the first time I’d actually been inside the Municipal House, and the visit was significant to me for one thing because we’ve actually had an artifact of Obecní Dům hanging in our flat this whole time, although I didn’t realize it until fairly recently. When we originally moved in, this giant cement baby head was there to greet us, stonily starting at the floor from his (?) wooden beam perch:


(Note: I realize the balloon spoils the effect a bit, but it’s left over from our Halloween party and the kid likes it. So, it stays).

Being generally intimidated by babies, I avoided making eye contact with the thing for a while and wondered if I would come downstairs someday to find it mysteriously vanished in the same unaccountable fashion that it had appeared in the first place. Eventually resigned to its presence, I thought to ask our landlord about it when he gamely showed up at one of our parties for a few minutes. A semi-retired architect, he told me that he had been involved in a restorative face-lift of Obecní Dům at some point and had managed to pinch it from the site!

While I was at it, it thought I might as well ask him who the previous tenants were. This is the kind of flat where you wind up being sort of curious about your predecessors, given that – as explained above – the place is sort of oddball and only conveniently set up for young-ish, child-less couples. This led to the following exchange:

Landlord: Oh, they were a very nice couple. Much like you, actually: the woman was Czech and the man was an American. And they liked traveling quite a bit.

Me: [starting to get creeped out imagining exact doubles of us living here before us]

Landlord: (after a pause) Except they were quite old. Older than us, in fact.

Me: [radically recalibrating my mental image in light of the fact that my landlord is about 70 years old]

So, there seems to be sort of a ‘Benjamin Button’ dynamic happening with our place. Whether the magic powers of the Obecní Dům Cherub has anything to do with this phenomenon can only be guessed at.


I attended two events last weekend that left me with the sense that my generation is overly nostalglc. First, on Friday night, I went to see the Pixies on their “Doolittle 20th Anniversary Tour.” I was an indie rock groupie in Boston in the late 80s, and this record was something of a watershed event in that world; on top of that, I had blown all of my opportunities to see the Pixies in their heyday, so I was very excited at the chance to see them play the record, even 20 years later. As I soon learned when I arrived at the third consecutive sold-out show at the Hollywood Palladium – a venue they never could have filled in 1989 even for one night – I wasn’t the only one: the club was jam packed with adoring Pixies fans in their 30s and 40s who went completely bananas when they took the stage. pixiesdoolittlecd As my friend who accompanied me pointed out, “Both the band and everybody in the audience want to pretend it’s 1989.” It was very redemptive to see them deliver a completely amazing performance of all of their old hits, and get the adoring crowd response they deserved, as they were relegated to opening for the Throwing Muses or U2 back when the material was new, despite the fact that it would be largely responsible for chart-toppers like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and many more. It was weird, though, to realize that it isn’t just the baby boomers who are aging rock fans anymore – there is now a whole new generation of aging indie scenesters to pay the $60 cover charge to a show like this to transport them back to the halcyon days of 1989.

Then, the next night, I saw “Where the Wild Things Are.” I suppose that the book is neutral as to which generation it’s about – it’s just a fantasy of childhood escapism. But I couldn’t help but see Spike Jonze’s treatment, with its indie score by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, as aimed, once again, at the 30- and 40-somethings from Jonze’s generation who now have kids themselves. wildthingsAlthough the film did eventually succumb to the criticism that I, and doubtless many others, thought of even before we saw it – “Is this 20-sentence book really going to lead to a satisfying feature-length film?” – it was nevertheless very powerful at times, especially in the opening scenes where we see how isolated Max is in his childhood world, and also, to a somewhat lesser extent, when we see how the petty jealousies and resentments from which he is fleeing exist even in his new wild kingdom, leading him to sail away back home to his still-warm supper.

As mentioned at the outset, the cumulative experience left me with the sense that I’m in a generation – or maybe a sub-group in a generation? – that is extremely, perhaps excessively, nostalgic. But I wonder if this is just what happens to everybody when they reach a certain age, or perhaps to everybody that age who doesn’t have kids yet …