At the top of the post you will find Radio Free Charleston number 132 from June, 2011. This was our last episode before we launched into our extensive coverage of FestivALL, which you will see unfold in this space over the next two months or so. This special pre-FestivALL episode included music from Wiley Sonic, The Voodoo Katz, and The Poor Taters, plus belly dancing from Jennifer Brooke Swanson, and animation by yours truly.
Host segments were shot on a sunny Sunday morning on Charleston’s historic East End in front of Glen Brogan’s then-new mural on the side of the Bluegrass Kitchen.
Jennifer was recorded on Capitol Street during a previous FestivALL. We caught up with Wiley Sonic at The Empty Glass, and recorded The VooDoo Katz at Haddad Riverfront Park. Finally the Poor Taters showed up courtesy of our old buddy, Jerry Fugaterecorded on a back porch somewhere in Putnam County, if I recall correctly.
Man, this one snuck up on me. I knew about this weeks ago, but almost forgot, and now I’m not sure I can make it out to see one of my favorite bands at The Empty Glass tonight. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go. Head out to see the Velvet Brothers tonight. You may even see me there, after all.
With so much recent attention to the current liquidation of Toys R Us, much has been said about how the world has changed, and how the beloved brick-and-mortar retail stores of the past simply can’t compete with the likes of Amazon.
There is truth to this, although the impending demise of Toys R Us has more to do with the evils of leveraged buyouts than any real market forces (and there is nothing new to report on that front–bids for parts of the retail chain, which could possibly see some US stores reopen under a new owner are due today, but any winners won’t be revealed until mid-April).
All this talk did get me thinking about why the world of retail has changed so dramatically. The simple answer is that mom-and-pop stores couldn’t compete with the buying power of the big-box stores, and now the big-box stores can’t compete with the convenience of online retailers.
That’s true to a point, but it glosses over the underlying factors.
Why couldn’t mom-and-pop stores compete with big-box retailers? It all comes down to the priorities of the consumer. Consumers want several things from a retailer: convenience, selection, service and the best possible price. Note that I did not list those in order of importance.
Consumers demonstrated that they are willing to forego convenience and service in order to have a larger selection and lower prices.
People bemoan the loss of personalized service that used to be available from the old-time mom-and-pop grocery stores. Much of that has been romanticized with the passage of time. Folks have a nostalgic desire for a thing that never really existed.
Many mom-and-pop grocers had ridiculously high prices, poor selection, and while they might be located within easy walking distance from your house, you’d be hard-pressed to find exactly what you want there. On top of that, much of the time mom and/or pop was downright surly and could be thoroughly unpleasant to be around.
When major retailers like Walmart began to expand nationwide it was no contest. Sure, you had to drive a little farther, but you had a much better selection and much lower prices, so eventually you didn’t even bother slowing down as you sped past the old mom-and-pop retailer.
I live in Dunbar. I have my entire life. When I was a kid there were small grocery stores all over town. These were the small precursors to what eventually became convenience stores. Eventually, as chains like Go Mart expanded into town and offered gas in addition to bread, milk and butter, these little stores dried up and faded away. It’s nice to think about how wonderful and colorful these little stores were, but the harsh truth is that they were pretty awful nasty places, where the store owner would mark out expiration dates and you were playing botulism roulette if you ever bought any meat there. On top of that, the prices were sky-high.
I’m not saying that all mom-and-pop retailers were like that, but enough were that the opportunity to go to a nice, big, clean mega-mart that had a vast selection and everyday low prices was tremendously appealing to vast amounts of people.
This has happened with toy stores, book stores and other specialty retailers. Not every independent book store was as wonderful as Taylor Books still is. Many had miniscule selections and high prices and couldn’t be bothered to special order anything for a customer. Those stores fell by the wayside as soon as Waldenbooks and B. Dalton came to town, and when those chains mutated into Borders and Barnes & Noble, they eventually fell to the combined might of Amazon and mismanagement following their own leveraged buyouts. (Barnes & Noble is still with us, but they’re not doing so hot these days)
Likewise, Toys R Us began making near-fatal mistakes almost a quarter-century ago. When Charles Lazurus, their founder, retired in 1994, the new management team decided to slash the amount of product that they carried by 60%. That led to a sales slump that made them ripe for a leveraged buyout (by some of the same folks who bled KayBee Toys dry, no less) and that brought them to their current state of liquidation.
Before that, Toys R Us, KayBee Toys and Children’s Palace combined to wipe out a goodly number of independently-owned toy stores nationwide.
The smaller, local stores may have had much better service, but they could never hope to compete on selection or price.
That brings us to today, when Walmart is hurting, Sears and K Mart are on life support, and other major retail chains are dropping like flies. The simple answer is that they can’t compete with online retailers. The question brought about by that answer is “why?”
For an answer to that question, I refer back to a famous quote, somewhat mangled in translation, but appropriate here in its mangled form. From Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, “No Exit,” the thought that popped into my head as I ventured forth last Sunday into not one, but two liquidating Toys R Us stores while suffering from severe seasonal allergies: “Hell is other people.”
It’s not the same exact meaning as Sartre intended, taken out of the context of his play about the afterlife, but it made for the perfect slogan for a day when I really didn’t feel like going out, but made myself leave the house, and then came to regret that decision.
When I shop at Amazon, I don’t have some lumbering oaf stand directly in front of what I’m trying to see, oblivious to my polite interjections of “excuse me” and apparently so intent on never moving that I swear I think they had their mail rerouted. I don’t have people jumping in front of me and ripping things out of my hand, only to toss them aside when they see that it wasn’t something they want.
When I shop online, I don’t have to fight my way to find what I’m looking for, only to have some slack-jawed bespeckled person unleash some Lovecraftian behemoth of a flatulant outburst so strong that I have to make the choice between retreat or barfing.
There are no screaming children being screamed at by their screaming parents when I’m shopping online. I don’t get bruises on my shins from excitable idiots shoving their carts in directions at which their eyes are not pointed.
I try to be a hopeful person. I try to be optimistic and love my fellow man and be a nice person and all that upbeat, happy stuff. But lately, when I have to go shopping in a crowded store, I come away imagining how wonderful it would be if a sudden plague laid waste to humanity.
I don’t like feeling like that. Expecially when the liquidation discount was just ten percent, and most of the stuff in the store cost more than it did before the sale began.
I came away with an understanding about why brick-and-mortar retail is in such peril. I can see why we may soon be living in a world where you won’t be able to run to a mall or a crowded store, and instead will just have to order everything online.
It’s called progress. In this case, progress will bring us even lower prices and better selection, added to the convenience of home delivery. As a bonus, you’ll be able to shop without wanting to kill everyone in the world.
That’s this week’s PopCulteer. Keep checking back for all our regular features.
Local writer/artist extraordinaire, Jason Pell, has a new project in the pipeline, and you can get in on the early action via Kickstarter now.
Pinpricks. A book of tiny and terrible oddities is not really a novel, per se. It’s one-hundred and one illustrated short stories of misfits, monsters, and the terminally awkward.
There are a variety of reward levels, but the coolest part is that, at the low price of $15, you get a hardcover copy of Pinpricks, plus a few extra goodies. Lots of Kickstarter graphic novel projects make you pay more than twice that, just to get a paperback collection.
The book is scheduled to be delivered in September, and at the higher levels you can collect other perks, like hardcover editions of Jason’s previous works, or even your name, used in one of the stories.
Jason is a top-level creator and this looks to be a terrific project. Follow the links in the widget to kick in. Just one day in, and the project is almost halfway home.
Fifty Freakin’ Years Of The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers
by Gilbert Shelton
This slim volume of the best-selling Underground Comics characters of all time, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, is just a little late to the celebration of the comic trio’s drug-addled fiftieth anniversary year, but that doesn’t stop it from being a fun souvenir for a pretty wild party. An earlier Knockabout edition was published in comic shops a few weeks ago, but the official bookstore edition is due to be published in April.
The Freak Brothers are a trio of hippies with little in common except for a love of pot and sex and a serious dislike of work. Freewheelin’ Franklin is the loner stoner from Texas, Phineas is the excitable genius and Fat Freddy is the one with the permanent munchies. They’re a bit of a blend of The Marx Brothers and The Three Stooges, filtered through a pot-clouded lens.
The Golden Anniversary of the Freak Brothers was actually last year, but production of this book took a bit longer than anticipated. The series’ creator, Gilbert Shelton, is pushing eighty years old and living in London, but he supplies a quick, sharp-witted history of his characters, from their origins on a poster promoting a short film he’d made to their role in the best selling underground comics of all time (with millions in print) to their many failed movie options.
The big attraction for the die-hard fans here is 28 pages of new Freak Brothers comics that were published since the 2008 collection of every Freak Brothers comic in a huge omnibus collection. The completist will want to have these new strips, which include a guest appearance by Robert Crumb’s Mr. Natural, and a parody strip by Hunt Emerson.
This anniversary update contains several brand new strips: Phineas becomes a Suicide Bomber, Franklin got his Gun, Fat Freddy gets Religion, and more Freak Brothers short strips. There is also a gallery of merchandise and production stills from an animated feature that never quite finished getting produced. The best part is Shelton’s introduction and explanations of various parts of the book.
Fifty Freakin’ Years Of The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers is a fun look one of the classics of underground comics. It’s perfect for the completist, and it’s good for anyone already familiar with the characters who wouldn’t be offended by the sex, nudity and drug use that play key parts in many of the stories. It’s probably not the best introduction to the Freak Brothers mythos, but it’s filled with lots of Freaky treats.
Due to a lingering post-vacation cough The AIR is still mostly in re-runs this week. Your PopCulteer still has a voice that is somewhere between sounding like a diesel motor that won’t turn over and Marge Simpson, on top of that a deadline crunch is tying me up elsewhere. A new episode of Life Speaks to Michele Zirkle will light up your Wednesday, while we pull another classic episode of Radio Free Charleston International out of the archives for you on Thursday.
You can visit the The AIR website, or listen in on this embedded radio player…
Tuesday morning, starting at 9 AM, we’ll bring you five hours of Classic Radio Free Charleston, followed by the rest of our music programming. We hope to return to new episodes of all of our shows next week.
Wednesday at 1:30 PM, you can expect a brand-new episode of Life Speaks to Michele Zirkle, which I will tell you about tomorrow, since I’m editing it right after I write this post. You can hear Life Speaks to Michele Zirkle Wednesday at 1:30 PM and 7 PM, with a replay Friday morning at 9:30 AM.
Thursday we replay our recent dip into the RFC archives with Blue Million on Radio Free Charleston at 2 PM, and follow that with the first broadcast in over a year of another classic episode of Radio Free Charleston International that hasn’t been heard in almost two years.
Next week we plan to have all-new music shows every afternoon, and we will be announcing a change in Prognosis, which airs on Mondays at 3 PM.
You can keep track of the full schedule right here…
It’s been a while since I’ve posted any of my geometric abstract art. In fact, it’s been a while since I’ve done any. What you see above is the first piece in that style that I’ve attempted on the new computer, since my old reliable Compac gave up the ghost last month. I have a few new toys (and I’m still missing a few old favorites) but this was just a quick doodle done while I was coughing my head off on a Sunday afternoon.
I named it after I finished it. You can come up with a better name, if you want. Click to see it larger, and don’t be surprised if I don’t quite post as much extra stuff this week. Deadlines and this nagging cold are drawing me away from PopCulting a bit, but we’ll still have at least one post per day.
Crack The Sky are probably the best band you never heard of. Formed in Weirton over 45 years ago, they moved to the Baltimore area soon after and attained a cult status that they have never quite managed to outgrow.
It’s not due to a lack of musical quality. Crack The Sky ranks among the greatest American progressive rock bands, and they’re still performing occasionally in around Baltimore, where they have remained local favorites for four decades.
John Palumbo is the band’s lead singer and primary songwriter, and his musical vision has carried the band close to the fifty year mark.
Tonight we present a rare concert, which was original simulcast on WBAL TV and WIYY 98 Rock FM back in 1982. This is the band at their peak of their second incarnation (they’re on their forth incarnation now). This was a wild and rare moment from back in the days when local TV stations would occasionally break their formula and try something innovative.
So check out a cool band that you probably never heard of before.
Up top, direct from the last day of May 2011, you see episode 131 of Radio Free Charleston. “Thenewno2 Shirt” was a special episode of RFC that was devoted to promoting a great triple bill of live, original music held on Saturday, June 4 of that year featuring local favorites Tofujitsu and Mother Nang and Washington DC’s, Wiley Sonic.
Wiley Sonic was the then-new band fronted by Joe Vallina (right), who has a long history with Radio Free Charleston, having appeared as the one of the first in-studio guests on the radio version of RFC back in 1989. Back then, Joe was half of the punk duo Blind Blue Leper Society. The other half of that duo was local bartending and jam band legend, Washboard Dave. More recently I’ve played tracks from Joe’s current band, The Heavy Editors, on the RFC radio show on The AIR.
Joe provided the music video for Wiley Sonic, and we had video in our archives of then-recent performances by Mother Nang (recorded at The Blue Parrot) and Tofujitsu (live at The Empty Glass). Animation is by Frank Panuci with music by yours truly. Host segments were recorded at the Grove City Outlet Mall, about an hour North of Pittsburgh for reasons I have totally forgotten. The show’s namesake shirt featured the band, thenewno2, which was the musical vehicle being used by Dhani Harrison. Dhani was an early supporter of RFC back in the MySpace days. And for some reason, there are planets running alongside the credits in this episode.
It’s time for this week’s PopCulteer, and since I haven’t done it for a while, this one’s going to be a stream-of-consciousness, multi-topic ramble.
Your PopCulteer has been under the weather for a few weeks now. Right before I left for my annual trek to Senoia, Georgia and then on to ToyLanta, I realized that my Myasthenia Gravis was flaring up for the first time since I’d been diagnosed and began treatment. I still have a ridiculously mild case, and for that I am eternally grateful, but I had a few days where my hands did not want to work as well as they have been, and a more severe side effect was my double vision worsening.
Still, this all really minor compared to people I know who struggle with severe Myasthenia Gravis, and I have to admit that I haven’t been more vocal about having this disease because I don’t feel like it’s hit me hard enough for me to complain about it.
However, being down a bit from the MG and venturing into a land where the Pear Trees decided to bloom early and fill the air with pollen meant that by the time we returned from the South (where we managed to have a wonderful time despite the various challenges), I was primed for any kind of seasonal allergic/sinus affliction, and have basically been coughing my head off for the past two weeks.
If you’ve been wondering why my shows on The AIR are still in reruns, that’s why. I have no voice at the moment.
Anyway, I do appear to be on the mend. I’m really hoping to get this cough tamed so that I can make it out to see Wolf’s Head: A Tale of Robin Hood and The Sheriff this weekend. I really want to see this show, but I also don’t relish the idea of disrupting a performance with my barking pumpkin impression.
In the meantime, I am still able to write, and there’s plenty of stuff going on at the moment.
The Toys R Us Mess
Compounding the sadness and confusion of yesterday, I had to re-write this post eight times in three hours as new information came to light, Charles Lazarus (right), the 94-year-old founder of Toys R Us, passed away. It was sad, and touching, and totally unrelated in any way to the fate of the company he founded 70 years ago. He cashed out and retired in 1994, and had nothing to do with the current management of the company.
As I write this (early Friday morning) the Toys R Us liquidation sales are supposed to start today. That may change, but it appears that the hold up may not have been the potential rescue of some of the stores, as I theorized yesterday, but instead may be related to the bankruptcy filing on Wednesday of the Toys R Us real estate arm, which carries nearly $900 million in debt, and which will likely be combined with the Toys R Us bankruptcy and cause a shuffling of prioritized creditors.
Since the court is not exactly making all such decisions public yet, this is all supposition.
Isaac Larian, the founder of MGA who is trying to raise enough money to save approximately half of the US stores from going under, has turned to crowdfunding in an attempt to raise an additional $800 million, in addition to the $200 million of his own money that he’s put up.
Call me cynical, but this has all the earmarks of a publicity stunt that isn’t really expected to succeed. I can’t see somebody financing a billion-dollar business takeover via GoFundMe.
Meanwhile it’s looking like the pending revival of the KB Toys brand might turn out to just be a case of slapping the KB Toys name on one of those seasonal stores that sells calendars, games and toys, like we’ve had in the Charleston Town Center for the last few years at Christmas time.
While this isn’t as exciting or exotic as return to the KayBee Toys of the past, it’s at least a viable proposition, if underwhelming in the grand scheme of things.
What Happened to Stuff To Do
I’ve had a few (very few) readers notice that I am not cranking out a weekly run down of everything happening in Charleston any longer. It’s true. I’ve pushed “Stuff To Do” into semi-retirement. It had reached a point of diminishing returns.
I realized a couple of years ago that, while many people have tried to create comprehensive arts calendars and entertainment guides for Charleston as a response to complaints that there’s nothing to do in town, or at least any way to find out about it, the harsh reality is that there aren’t enough people who care what’s going on to make such an endeavor worth the effort.
Back in the early days of The AIR, I hosted a weekly audio show with my wife, Mel Larch, called “Stuff To Do,” named after the regular column here in PopCult. After ten weeks of putting a lot of work into the show so that we could have a fresh episode not only on The AIR, but also available for download on Wednesday mornings, we discovered that nobody was listening–not to the station when it aired, and not a single download. And that show took about twenty hours of research, writing and recording each week.
Likewise, I was spending a tremendous amount of time each week compiling Stuff To Do for PopCult.
Several hours would go into looking up schedules and searching Facebook for events to which I had not yet been invited, and in many cases creating graphics for concerts–and hardly anybody read those posts.
Of late I have found that I attract more readers by focussing on a single event than I do by attempting to tell everybody about every single thing happening in Charleston. So I’ve become more selective about what I plug here in the blog.
For instance, in the last two weeks I’ve written posts about two local events, Wolf’s Head: A Tale of Robin Hood and The Sheriff, and the Cabernet and Clay sculpting event at Rad FX Atelier. Those posts have been read hundreds of times. To contrast that, the last time I did a comprehensive “Stuff To Do” post, it was read twelve times. That post took over five hours to compile.
To contrast it even further, when I write about toys, comics, movies or music, many thousands of people read those posts.
So I’ve made the decision that, to get more bang for my buck, in terms of where I focus my energies, I can do more good for the local scene by plugging one or two events per week, instead of trying to be all things to all people. The readers have spoken with their eyes, and there doesn’t seem to be any interest in me writing an aggregate guide to weekend events.
There has been much ado about Facebook’s data breach this week, and it’s resulted in a lot of folks deciding to give up using the service, or to at least take a day to protest it.
This is all rather silly. From day one I knew what Facebook was–a massive data-mining operation, and I decided to use it and to protect myself as much as possible, since there are many benefits to using the service.
I have never volunteered my information to Facebook. I’ve never completely filled out my profile or given them my phone number. I’m sure they have all this information already by aggregating it with my personal profiles with other businesses, but I’ve never confirmed it with them.
I’ve also never used Facebook to sign into another service, and I’ve never taken a quiz that requires you to sign in to Facebook, or done any of those silly, innocuous things that require you to allow them access to your Facebook account. All of that is done so that they can create a profile of you that can be sold to other companies to target advertising to you, or as we saw last year, to influence your political views.
I also never allow myself to be tagged in a location. While I was on vacation Facebook somehow determined where I was using my laptop on the way down and tagged me automatically, and I had to manually remove all those tags.
I’m not shocked or surprised that the data has been misappropriated and used for evil purposes. That’s really the only logical endgame of such an enterprise that trades in YOUR preferences and personal details. The fact is, Facebook is Big Brother, and anyone who uses the service is working for the surveillance team.
Speaking of Personal Data
Yesterday afternoon I had some free time, was filled to the brim with cold medicine, and got aggravated by junk mail. Specifically, I was aggravated by junk mail from AARP.
AARP started sending me junk mail before I turned 40. It’s elaborate junk mail, sometimes with fake membership cards printed on thick plastic, usually with no visible signs on the outside of the envelope, so that you don’t just toss it straight into the trash, and it’s also voluminous. I usually get three to six pieces of junk mail from AARP each week. This is paid for by the membership fees of people who haved joined AARP thinking that they would actually do some good with their money.
It was yesterday, after being tricked once again into opening an envelope with no return address and a huge warning “CARDS ENCLOSED: DO NOT BEND,” that I remembered back to over a year ago when I called to complain and was told that I would be removed from their mailing list, but that it would take up to three months for the mailings to stop.
Let me interject here that there is no valid reason for this type of delay, and the people who came up with this policy are forcing their telephone representatives to lie to people every day about it.
Of course, since I was then expecting the junk mail to continue for three months, I didn’t really notice that it hadn’t stopped until more than a year had passed. So I dug out my email exchanges from last year and called again.
Keep in mind that I have NEVER been a customer of AARP.
When I called I got the same run-around about how it would take three months for the junk mail to stop. I pressed further, and the nice young lady informed me that she was surprised that I was still getting junk mail because on my profile, all the boxes were marked to “suppress” all contact.
She then read her script to me to tell me that the junk mail must be coming from third parties.
After explaining that there was nothing on the mail to indicate that it was from a third party–that it included their return address and urged me to send them money for a membership and a free backpack or something, it hit me.
Insert the sound of a record scratching here.
“My profile?” What profile? I’m not, nor have I ever been a member, customer or whatever of AARP. I started asking her questions about it. They have a profile on me? How can I get them to delete it? Would she delete it for me right now? She even put me on hold to ask her supervisor if such a thing were possible. Apparently it isn’t.
I even got a bit of shocked laughter from her when I asked if she could just mark me “deceased,” but then I remembered that my parents both got mail from AARP for years after they’d passed away.
In case you didn’t know, AARP keeps profiles on everyone they consider to be a potential member. Keep in mind that this is a political lobbying organization, and what they’re doing is at least as nefarious as what Cambridge Analytica did with the stolen Facebook data.
If you call AARP and ask them to delete your profile, they will refuse. Nobody you can reach on the phone even has the ability to respect your marketing preference.
All you can do is blog about it.
And that is this week’s PopCulteer. Check back for our regular features, cover your mouths when you cough or sneeze and remember to stay hydrated.