What I Liked About February

*Visiting with the McCormicks of Wilmington
*My new favorite MTV show, "Engaged and Underage"
*The Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame, Euclid, OH
*Marah, Maxwell's, Hoboken, NJ

*Bowling with the Presidents, Union City, NJ
*Reading Terminal Market, Philadelphia, PA
*"Do You Remember Rock and Roll Radio?" (acoustic) by Frankie and Kelly McGrath, Googie's Lounge, NYC
*The Islanders not trading Jason Blake

*Split Lip Rayfield, Beachland Ballroom, Cleveland, OH
*U.S. Open Pro-Am, North Brunswick, NJ
*Soweto Gospel Choir, Zankel Hall, NYC
*The willingness of people with cars to drive me places


Gutter Talk

Tinsel and Rot (current name change being considered: Bowling and Death) continues its recent theme with its report from this year's U.S. Open Pro-Am in North Brunswick, NJ. As devoted readers (a redundant phrase if ever there was one) will no doubt recall, last year's trip culminated in a glorious photo op with PDW himself, Mr. Pete Weber. The goal for this year's trip was some up close and personal time with PDW's rival, and maybe the greatest bowler of all time (certainly Top 3, with Dick Weber and Earl Anthony), Mr. Walter Ray Williams Jr. Walter Ray is not only the owner of 42 PBA titles (most ever)--earning over $3 million in the process--but he is also a six-time world horseshoe pitching champion and a member of the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association of America Hall of Fame. Aint that a man?

Walter Ray is nearly the exact opposite of the high-energy, showboaty Pete Weber, as documented in "A League of Ordinary Gentlemen", a documentary you should clearly put on your precious little Netflix queue, if only to see Hall of Famer Wayne Webb's admission to fellow bowler Randy Pederson that it may be time to call it quits. But it's a fine movie for other reasons, as it documents the "rebranding" of the PBA by a bunch of Microsoft guys and the struggles along the way--both for the league and bowlers such as Webb, an all-time great who has to face that he has no place on the tour anymore and must head back to his part-time karaoke business to make ends meet. And the movie also plays up the rivalry between the brash PDW and the timid Walter Ray, the latter of which travels by RV while on tour. Another classic scene shows Walter Ray chipping the ice off his RV. The juxtaposition of a man who is probably the top player in his sport climbing up to the roof to clean the ice off his RV's roof is a fitting coda for the movie. Go rent it; it's good.

Anyway, back to the U.S. Open in North Brunswick. Monday was Pro-Am day, where you, Mr. or Mrs. Average Bowler, gets a chance to bowl alongside PBA Tour professionals for a very reasonable sum. What other sport will do that for you? Just imagine how much you'd have to go through to shoot hoops with Gilbert Arenas, catch a pass from Peyton Manning, or misplay routine grounders with Alex Rodriguez. If you could even get near these people, you'd probably have to pay several thousand bucks to hang with them. But at the U.S. Open you could do that for as little as $69 (or as high as $189, plus you'd get a free ball).

Of course, I once again forgot to sign up, so I just paid $25 and spent the day wandering around the lanes, securing autographs and a few pictures. And that was fun, too, until a couple of amateurs pitched a fit when I accidentally knocked over a Smirnoff Ice (or something clear and alcoholic), thus creating a "situation," because this made the area behind the lanes sticky. Of course, this could create a potentially catastrophic situation with bowling shoes and your slide foot. If someone loses the U.S. Open this week because of a sticky shoe, I will feel awful. Right now, I'm OK with it. Sorry, but OK. Shouldn't have beverages in the lane area anyway, amateurs.

But up until that point, it was a fun day punctuated with a constant barrage of the greatest sound in sports: when the ball hits the pocket dead on. It looks a little like this (bad photo quality, but you get the point):

That's Hall of Famer Brian Voss knockin' 'em down. And here's future Hall of Famer and current color commentator for ESPN Norm Duke going wide in what might be my new favorite picture:

And if all goes right, you'll see another personal fave (and featured subject in "A League of Ordinary Gentlemen") Chris "Master of the Flying Eagle" Barnes in the Hall of Fame one day, too. Here, he demonstrates the proper form for you kids out there:

But the best approach on the tour is currently the mighty Jason Couch. Check out the height:

And in between watching the pros, it was photo time with Barnes and Duke:

And, yes, mission was accomplished with the snapping of this photo of James Andrew and Walter Ray:


By the time I hopped on the bus back to the New Brunswick train station and, eventually, home, I had met the Sunday afternoon heroes I wanted to meet (including PDW again, to have him sign the photo of the two of us from last year, which his wife, who took the pictures, correctly noted featured no smiles at all) and was the proud owner of a bowling pin signed by 25 PBA pros, which joins its brother from last year and poses with my ball for the team photo that now wraps up this entry.

I'll talk about something other than bowling soon, I promise.


Kirk Rundstrom RIP

Kirk Rundstrom passed away this morning in Wichita. He was 38.

From Split Lip Rayfield's website:

“With great sadness we must announce that our band mate, friend and brother Kirk Rundstrom has lost his battle. Anybody who knew Kirk knew that he had more zest than all of us. He truly had an ethereal spirit. We have been proud and impressed with the way he went out on his own terms. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t fair, and it sure as hell isn’t right, but he was an inspiration. We love him and will miss him.

Thanks for your prayers…

Split Lip Rayfield”


I can see him now, reluctantly giving the cut sign when Wayne Gottstine checked in to see if he had enough strength for an encore at the Beachland Ballroom. That's the last I saw of him, soldiering on, wanting to play just one more, but realizing that he simply couldn't. A powerful last image, I guess. But I wish it didn't have to be.

Rest in peace, Kirk. Thanks for the music. Thanks for the shows. And thanks for a gutsy, inspiring final act.

UPDATE: Check out a great article on Kirk's life courtesy of Rachel Leclear at lawrence.com.


Hail to the Chiefs

Tinsel and Rot's salute to bowling continues as we bring you the results of the First Ever Presidents' Day Bowling Extravaganza, which took place today at Bowl-Rite Lanes in Union City, NJ (13 games bowled for $41, with one shoe rental...what a place). The Extravaganza featured six presidential duels, plus a bonus solo game for Rutherford B. Hayes. After a spirited tie in the first game, the subsequent five head-to-heads were a little less competitive.

Game 1: Franklin Pierce (120) tied LBJ (120). LBJ works his way out of a quagmire and ties the game in the 10th.

Game 2: Millard Fillmore (176) def. James K. Polk (115). Fillmore makes the Finger Lakes region proud and takes home the Top Bowler of the Day trophy, handily defeating Polk (shown above).

Game 3: Herbert Hoover (135) def. William Howard Taft (113). They weren't booing, they were chanting "Hooooooooooover."

Game 4: Warren G. Harding (157) def. Calvin Coolidge (105). Silent Cal is no match for Harding (shown above looking very unathletic), who atones for his Teapot Dome sins with a 52-pin victory.

Game 5: Ulysses S. Grant (138) def. Grover Cleveland (104). Not a very effective president, Grant proves to be competent enough to beat back the resilient Cleveland, seen gunning for a second, nonconsecutive spare above.

Game 6: Chester A. Arthur (151) def. John Quincy Adams (87). The Gentleman Boss shows off his kegling prowess in a thumping of the exhausted JQA.

Game 7: Rutherford B. Hayes (126). No one wants to play "Rutherfraud," but he soldiers on anyway with a respectable 126.

Happy Presidents' Day to all and to all a good night.


Let the Eagle Fly

With the NFL officially off the clock, you can now enjoy the splendors of the PBA Tour on ESPN. And because the people who run the PBA have more brains than those who run the NHL (and now more viewers), they're actually taking advantage of an early non-NFL weekend to air their always-entertaining Skills Challenge.

The Skills Challenge finds eight two-man teams competing for $15,000 in what is essentially a game of Horse without the spelling. I've only seen one-on-one Skills Challenges, but I assume it'll be the same deal for this one, which is billed as "Young Guns vs. Legends." It's usually pretty cool, and some of the shots are damn impressive. My personal favorite is the Flying Eagle, one of Chris Barnes's specialties.

Norm Duke (master of the towel shot) is the defending champ, though, so he'll be the one to beat. Other top contenders are Tony Reyes, Mike Machuga, and, of course, New Jersey's own Parker Bohn III. All are featured in the promo below.

Check it out on Sunday at 2 p.m., or whenever the finals of the PBA 2007 Go RVing Classic wrap up. Pete Weber's currently fourth in that, so maybe you should make a whole early afternoon of it and see if you can catch some PDW action.


Because, Just Because

After a few hours of sleep, I arose bright and early Saturday morning with the intention of squeezing in a visit to the Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame in Euclid before my 1:50 p.m. flight back to JFK (the airport, not the man). The Hall of Fame's website said it opened at 10 a.m. on Saturday, so it seemed doable, particularly because it seemed that the Hall of Fame could not possibly occupy more than three rooms in Euclid's old City Hall. Polka even had to share the space with the Softball Hall of Fame, or, to use the museum's complete name, the Greater Cleveland Slo Pitch Softball Museum and Hall of Fame. Think of that niche and imagine how exciting such a landmark would be. I passed on that.

But the Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame--now there's something that'll get me out of bed at 8:30 on a Saturday morning. Just to make sure that the website wasn't lying (as websites sometimes do), I placed a call to the Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame at 9 a.m. I got a recording that confirmed the 10 a.m. opening, but, most excitedly, the recording ended with a sincere wish for me to have a "polkarrific" day. Indeed, I would.

I would like to go on record that Yellow Zone Cabs get the Tinsel and Rot Seal of Approval for Best Cleveland Taxi Service. I tried another one on the way back from the Beachland, and they overcharged me, plus the driver kinda yelled at me for not having a plan to get out of Iraq. He was actually a good guy, but the political talk got kind of awkward toward the end of the ride, particularly when we pulled up to the hotel and the conversation didn't end. I was kinda tired, dude.

But Tom, the Yellow Zone driver who drove me to and fro the Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame, was aces. He stunningly knew nothing about the Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame, but he knew Euclid well, having lived there 40 years ago. So he found it just fine and gave me his card to call him for a ride back. And then he apologized for being late and gave me a discounted ride straight to the airport. He's the man. I've got his cell number if you want it. He works weekends.

Anyway, after Tom dropped me off around 9:45, I took a walk around Euclid and took in the many exciting things it offers on a Saturday morning. There was a funeral going on at the church and a bakery was open. Rather than barge into the funeral, I went to the bakery (Wojtila's) and picked up a disappointing chocolate custard doughnut and a far superior Polish-type pastry that I never got the name of. Tasty, though. I tried learning the names of Polish pastries once, but just when I thought I had the pronunciation of "paczka" down, I asked for one at a bakery in Greenpoint and the woman looked at me as if I were insane. So now I just point at things in bakeries. (The pronunciation, by the way, is "POONCH-kah." Clearly, I'm an idiot for not getting that one right.)

Where was I? Right, the Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame. Much like the Greater Cleveland Slo Pitch Softball Museum and Hall of Fame is not quite the actual Softball Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, the Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame must distinguish itself from the International Polka Hall of Fame, which I'm not sure is an actual building. The facility in Cleveland honors the style of polka where the accordion is up front, rather than the brass-heavy styles of bands like the one led by 16-time Grammy-winning Jimmy Sturr, whose only appearance in the Euclid HOF is a picture in a hallway and a few CDs in the gift shop. I doubt he takes it personally.

The Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame is built around the legacy of the all-time polka king, Frankie Yankovic (no relation, jerko). Yankovic played the biggest role in popularizing the Cleveland style of polka and is responsible for two of the most revered polka recordings, "Just Because" (one of the all-time great songs) and "Blue Skirt Waltz." He brought polka out of the suburbs of Cleveland and into the public eye, and his name is clearly still spoken in hushed tones among the polka aficionados of Cleveland, if not the world. Memorabilia from his career fills the main room of the Hall, and he is the centerpiece of the 15-minute video that the woman in the gift shop was nice enough to play for me. I'm sure she was stunned to see a 30-year-old man in the Hall of Fame at 10:15 in the morning. Yes, surprisingly, I had the Hall of Fame all to myself. People don't respect the past like they used to. They've got Frankie's jacket on display. What are you waiting for, America?

In addition to the plaques honoring the Hall of Fame inductees and the classic polka recordings that defined the genre, there is also a section of the main room devoted to the Trustees Honor Roll, which salutes those who contributed to the longevity and popularity of Cleveland-style polka. First of all, regardless of the achievements of these people, it's a collection of some of the best names ever, such as Jack "Porky" Ponikvar, Heinie Martin Antoncic, and Rudy Kershishnik. But it's also an interesting look into not just polka, but also the working-class people who lived lives in service to polka. Here are my two favorites from the bunch:

After my tour through the Hall, I did some damage at the gift shop, picking up a Johnny Vadnal CD, because his music sounded cool in the 15-minute documentary and he was an important guy in the early days of Cleveland-style polka, and a Casuals CD, because the cover had a bowling theme and one of the songs on the disc was titled "Grab Your Balls, We're Goin' Bowling." I don't think a CD has demanded me to purchase it quite as strongly as that one. And then I threw in a mug, a t-shirt, a pin, a postcard, a sticker, and, yeah, I think that's it.

If you're ever in Euclid, I think you know where you oughta go.


After Tom dropped me off at the airport, I had about 45 minutes to spare, so I searched around for some souvenirs and some food for the trip. As I decided whether I should buy a Cleveland Rocks t-shirt (eventual answer: yes), I came across the oddest looking, allegedly edible thing ever. Clearly, I had to buy it. And since my camera actually has a "Cuisine" mode for photographs, preserving it for the ages seemed like the right thing to do.

Pig heart or doughnut-like foodstuff? You make the call. (For the record, I think it was an apple fritter. There were apples involved.)

As I tucked my ginormous sugar-coated thing into my pocket, I headed onto the plane back home with warm memories of a seeing a truly memorable, life-affirming concert, hearing the crunch of snow under my feet for the first time in a long time, and experiencing a slice of polka heaven in Euclid.

Thanks, Cleveland. You rock.


Cleveland Rocks

As you may have noticed, I have a large fondness for music. It is, as described by Hunter S. Thompson, "a matter of energy for me, a question of Fuel." And there is no time of the year where I am more in need of that Fuel than the first two months of any year. Even when the winter's not as harsh as usual, there's something about January and February that demands a trip somehwere to see music. Last year, it was a couple of trips to see the Avett Brothers in January. But the Avetts were way out West this winter, so that was out of the question (or, more to the point, out of the budget). So I would have to look elsewhere.

In early January, I checked the Split Lip Rayfield site, looking for updates on Kirk Rundstrom's health. The band had done a few shows at the end of 2006 that they declared to be the official end of the road. I had thought about taking a trip out for one of those shows, but the timing didn't work out. So I had resigned myself to the fact that I'd miss out on seeing Split Lip one last time.

Until that day in January when the band announced that Kirk wanted to keep doing shows and would head out for a four-day run in February that would include a stop at the Beachland Ballroom in Cleveland. That would be the furthest east the band had come on their farewell tour. I hemmed and hawed a bit about the money part of the trip, but after getting a reasonable price on a flight, it was all systems go. I'd take a flight Friday morning, see the show on Friday night, and then head home on Saturday. Then, checking out what to do in Cleveland, I discovered that the Cleveland-Style Polka Hall of Fame was in nearby Euclid. And so the trip became that much more exciting.

Well, maybe "exciting" isn't the right word for a trip built on seeing a man with terminal cancer for the last time. But then again, maybe it is.


To recap for those without a strong knowledge of every post here, Kirk Rundstrom, guitarist and singer in Kansas's Split Lip Rayfield, was diagnosed with esophageal cancer last January. After undergoing months of treatments, doctors eventually gave him the bad news in June that there was little they could do. He was given two to six months to live. Rather than spending his last days undergoing more treatments that would weaken him, Rundstrom decided to go out doing what he loved. So, with mandolin player/singer Wayne Gottstine back on board as well, Split Lip Rayfield went back out on the road, doing weekend runs and shows for their Kansas fanbase. Now, almost eight months after the prognosis, Rundstrom is defying the odds and still playing shows.

I once saw John Hartford give a show at the Bottom Line a few months before his death. In betweeen songs, he would take swigs from what I assume was a bottle of medicine, apologizing for his sluggishness along the way. Toward the end of the show, he expressed his regret that he would not be able to meet with fans after his set, as it was just a bad idea considering his weakened medical condition. At the time, I didn't really know much about John Hartford, so the show--and his frail condition--probably wasn't as heartbreaking to me as it was to his more devoted fans. What I remember most about the show is Hartford's dry, laconic ramble through "Watching the River Go By." It's a simple, mainly spoken song, but that night Hartford and his band made it seem like the greatest song I've ever heard. I bought the studio CD on which it appears, and it sounds just fine. But it doesn't sound like it did that night. There's a sweet, sad magic missing from it. I'm glad I got to hear that magic that night.

I also once felt compelled to take a bus to Woodstock to go to the memorial service for The Band's Rick Danko. I know that seems strange, but it really didn't at the time. It seemed like exactly the right thing to do--because The Band played a big part in guiding me to the music I listen to and love. And I just felt that I had to show my appreciation in some way. But there may have been another reason for going, too. Danko played solo shows in New York City all the time, and I always put them off, thinking there would always be plenty of opportunities to see him again. And then, suddenly, there weren't. I think I went to Woodstock partly as an apology for missing all those shows, and partly because I was angry for having done so.

Since then, I've tried to treat certain shows with a sense of urgency. Maybe that sounds odd to you, because you get your Fuel other ways. And that's fine. But that's how I got to Cleveland.

After a pleasant, uneventful flight, a quick stop at the hotel, and a cab ride from a driver who seemed to only have a vague idea of where the Beachland Ballroom was, I headed into the show. Well, actually, I first made a few purchases at the nearby Music Saves and the kick-ass This Way Out downstairs at the Beachland. But I'll skip over that in favor of the actual show, OK?
There were two opening acts, one (Chittlin') who had pretty good songs but not much stage presence and another (Uncle Scratch's Gospel Revival) who had great stage presence but kinda dopey songs. The latter at least demands a picture, particularly because experimentation with my new camera resulted in this one:

They certainly weren't boring. I don't know if I'd run out to buy their CDs, but it is a pretty entertaining live experience. And during their last song, a fight broke out behind me. Always cool.

But all that was a lead-up to Split Lip, who took the stage to loud applause and an outpouring of love, which was another reason I was glad to be at the show. Most of the Split Lip shows I've seen in the NYC area have been criminally underattended, so it's always nice to see a good band get a good-sized crowd. I remember seeing Split Lip at Maxwell's in Hoboken back in 2005, and I was among ten people who share that memory. I also recall reading that Wayne Gottstine left the band soon after that tour, and understanding completely.

Anyway, as I said, Gottstine was back on board, and since his mandolin playing has always been my favorite part of the band, it was good to see him up on stage again. And, of course, it was good to see Rundstrom up there, too. He certainly looked a little frailer than the last time I saw him, but he still looked reasonably well, particularly for a man that doctors didn't expect to be playing to a large crowd in Cleveland on a Friday night in February 2007. But it was sort of a weird experience for me. While I would usually not think twice about a guitarist staggering around a bit on stage, every time Rundstrom tipped back a bit or lurched forward, I would just get really worried. It was one thing to come to Cleveland to see Split Lip one last time, but it would be something else entirely to see something horrible happened while Rundstrom was on stage. So my heart jumped a bit when he knocked his head against the microphone mid-set. And I was a little distracted for the next few minutes.

But then the music took over. It's hard to really explain Split Lip's sound, other than I like it. What else do you need? It's played with bluegrass instruments (with the exception of a bass made from a gas tank and one string made out of weed whacker line), but it's not really bluegrass. I bet I've used that same description--minus the bass part--for the Avett Brothers, and Split Lip does share a similar, fast-picking energy with the Avetts. And it's that energy--whether derived from Eric Mardis's banjo runs, Gottstine's insane mandolin solos, or Jeff Eaton's mastery of the aforementioned unique bass--that completely washed away the sadness I expected Friday night's show to bring.

And when Rundstrom ripped through a guitar solo or plowed into singing, the realization that I was seeing a really good band give everything they had to a devoted crowd on a Friday night in Cleveland knocked away any sorrow in my heart. The show wasn't a funeral. It was a celebration, just like every show the band has done since Rundstrom's diagnosis and every show they will do until...

I don't feel like finishing that sentence. And I doubt anybody in Split Lip does either. So they play on. They've added some more dates for the months ahead. They'll be a helluva party.

P.S. I don't know if you'd dig Split Lip's music, but why not give it a shot? Visit their homepage or their MySpace page to hear their songs (and maybe buy thir CDs?). And you can donate money to help Kirk out by clicking on the link on the left-hand side of this page. Think about it, OK?

NEXT: And then we polka.

Ein prosit, Mr. Sturr

Tinsel and Rot salutes Jimmy Sturr on his 16th Grammy Award for Best Polka Album. You can't stop him; you can only hope to contain him.

More polka-related stuff--and a bunch more weekend-related stuff--later.


As promised...

Most Sunday nights follow the same pattern. Early in the evening, I vow to head to bed early so I can be refreshed for work on Monday morning. Then, around the time that whatever "Surreal Life" offshoot currently on the air starts up, I begin to realize how stupid it would be to be "refreshed for work" and wind up aimlessly running up and down the cable dial, staying up well past the usual time and eventually settling down to watch a completely pointless show hosted by a gasbag.

That show is "Mike'd Up." And the host is Mike Francesa, a man whose chief contribution to society is that, on a radio show cohosted by Chris "Mad Dog" Russo, he is actually the guy I consider to be the more annoying one.

While a TV show hosted by Russo might have mild entertainment value, one hosted by Francesa is righteously awful. And on a consistent basis. The show consists of Francesa spouting off nonsense about whatever sports event he finds worthy (but never hockey, because he knows absolutely nothing about it) usually behind a table with a bowl of snack food on it (this week's edition featured a Super Bowl XLI cake and a platter of wings). Half of his opinions are asinine, and the other half are just lame. In that, he is, of course, your typical sports radio host, but there's something about actually seeing the smug look on Francesa's face, which you don't actually have to contend with on the radio, that makes me insane. But yet I watch. Unfortunately, the show usually makes me so angry that I never make it to the show I actually want to see, the legendary and soon-to-be-extinct "George Michael's Sports Machine." And then I go to bed angry, which is a good way to start the workweek. After watching the show, I start to understand why people call in to sports radio and sound unhinged. Maybe that's what the future holds for me.

This week's post-Super Bowl edition was particularly heinous. The moment at which my anger reached a fever pitch was when Francesa spent a good portion of time complaining that Peyton Manning didn't act happy enough after winning the Super Bowl. And then he showed some footage of John Elway's toothy smile after he won the Super Bowl, insisting that he would have preferred to see Manning celebrate like that. This went on for several minutes. Or maybe several hours. I lost track of time.

So, today, Tinsel and Rot is pleased to induct Mike Francesa into the People Tinsel and Rot Would Like To Kick in the Groin Hall of Fame. Congrats, pal. See you Sunday night.


Headline of the Year

I was going to write something about how much of a jackass Mike Francesa is (maybe later), but then I came upon this headline on my Yahoo Most Popular Headlines page:


I'm not sure what to say about that. Other than I'm glad I don't work with "Madge."


What I Liked About January

*Miranda Lambert, Mercury Lounge, NYC
*The birth of Quinn Marcas McCormick
*The coconut custard danish ring from the Cake Chef, Staten Island, NY
*Another powerful death episode of "Degrassi: The Next Generation"

*Islanders 5, Rangers 3 (and watching people walking in and around vomit during the first intermission)
*Dinner with the Gambinos in Hasbrouck Heights, NJ
*The Iaffaldano/Petty Engagement Extravaganza, Brick, NJ
*"My American Dream" by Naked Trucker and T-Bones

*Spotting myself in a picture in The Grand Ole Opry (p. 240)
*The Pizza Margherita at Lil' Frankie's, NYC
*The Bangles, House of Blues, Atlantic City, NJ
*The willingness of people with cars to drive me places