Thursday, June 30, 2011

"When I Grow Up To Be A Man"...

"Will I dig the same things that turn me on as a kid?"
Anyone who knows me knows I am a Beach Boys fan. When you grow up in a musical town like New Orleans, you hear and are influenced by so many great sounds. Obviously, this gumbo was greatly influenced by Dixieland Jazz, NOR&B, Motown and Stax soul and later the Neville funk. At sock hops, until the British Invasion, we danced slowly to Smokey, and Otis and Bobby"Blue"Bland. Our fast sets were to the likes of James Brown, Sam and Dave and the "Wicked Pickett!"

As a eight year old, I remember my mom and dad dancing amongst the mosquitoes at company picnics till long after dark. They danced to Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman, but they also boogied to songs like "You Rascal You," "Caledonia," "Muskat Ramble," and local tunes by Fats, Little Richard, and Louie Prima. Boy, they sure were great dancers especially my dad, who had other ladies waiting in line to dance with him... whenever mom had to stop to catch her breath.

My father always had a song to sing. When we were real young, Adele was ten, I was seven and my little sister, Rebecca, was five, dad would sing us at least one tune before turning out the light. We all slept in one bed, so when he sang, he sang to we three. "Tennessee Waltz," "How Much Is That Doggy in the Window," "Peg of My Heart," "Sunny Side of the Street," "Bye Bye Blackbird," "I'm in Love With You, Honey!" "High Hopes" were all tunes he would mangled lyrically, but sing ever so sweetly, musically.

After my dad lost his job with the phone company, things went to hell pretty quickly, but we shared baseball and listening to popular tunes on the car radio from the radio station, WSMB. For some reason, I gravitated to the instrumentals like Stranger on the Shore, Alley Cat, That Happy Feeling, Honky Tonk, Yakety-Sax, Whipped Cream and many others. Lyrics were silly, mushy or incoherent, but the melodies always stuck with me. Doo Wop songs that mimicked instruments were also big and I loved the harmonies and the cross melodies. The Ink Spots, The Mills Brothers, The Ames Brothers, The Robins, The Crows, The Flamingoes, The Platters were mostly black and super smooth. But, when I heard the Four Freshman, the Four Aces, the Limelighters, and the early college folk music stuff, I heard a different kind of doo wop sound. And many of my favorite instrumentals were on that new fangled, twangy instrument played by the likes of Duane Eddy, Santo and Johnny, and Tom and Jerry. I was hooked and begged mom to purchase me a guitar... any kind of guitar, even pedal steel, which I knew nothing about!

Well, everyone knows the explosion that happened mid-fifties with Elvis, Fats, Little Richard and all those great rockers including Chuck Berry, who, one could argue did more for the guitar and rock 'n roll than anyone until Jimi Hendrix exploded on the scene. There's nothing here I can add to all the great essays and books out there on rock 'n roll, but for a kid at fourteen or so, looking to replace all that black and rockabilly music with something else and not having my dad around to sing with, I bumped into the perfect combination when I first heard Jan and Dean's,"Baby Talk", Dick Dale's, "Let's Go Trippin" and the Beach Boys,"Surfin' USA".

As our family grew, so did my responsibilities and so did the arguments between my mom and dad. With the anxieties, the tension and strife that, to this day, defines our family psyche,  I'd go to bed listening to those beautiful melodies, cross harmonies and hauntingly painful wails of my new hero, Brian Wilson and find solace.

To many, Brian's falsetto singing was considered too girlie or fake like Frankie Valli's helium highs, but what I heard was his expression of pain, a pain I felt I shared with him. I found some kind of release as I hit the high notes. It was so soothing and cleansing to do so, like a blues singer or chain gang prisoner sang to help ease their sorrow. It was something to me so primal, so mournful and yet soulful enough to stir the heart of every wolf to ever throw back their head and howl on a moon lit night. Within my room, whether it was a slow song or a fast one, his voice sent me away to the nearest faraway place I could find just as fast as I could find it. In so many ways, he helped me get through the night and in so many ways, he helped me survive the sixties and early seventies.

Thanks Brian, thanks Beach Boys!

P.S. Notice there's no mention of surf, sand, boobs and babes, polka-dot bikinis or beach blanket bingos. That never was the Beach Boys to me!

Copyright 2011/ Ben Bensen III

Monday, June 27, 2011

My Problem Always Has Been That I Can See Both Sides...

"We Win!" is a painting I did in school illustrating a story I read in a magazine.
The other day I found a gaggle of buzzards hanging around another armadillo carcass. It's the second time in about a month that an animal was decomposing in the culvert at that corner. One of my next door neighbors is almost never there at his home since his wife passed away about four years ago, so I know it doesn't really matter to him.

Armadillos are all over the countryside this time of year either narrowly escaping a collision or upside down with stiff little legs pointed skyward on the side of the road. Three or four months ago, I wouldn't have known how so many 'dillas were done in at that crossroad, but it was clear to me my other neighbor had taken out another of the armored criminals with his flashlight and "elephant gun".

Mr. Jordan, after once again, helping me extract my nine hundred pound lawn tractor out of the muddy culvert, told about his late night hunts to keep the varmints off his property. Armadillos tear up his front lawn. Possums are eying his two peach trees. Raccoons are eating his pond fish. "I used to hunt and fish, but now, I just fish. Hunting is getting too political", he says. Mr. Jordan and his wife moved from Baton Rouge, where they are originally from, to Folsom after the riff raff from New Orleans evacuated north post Katrina. I knew exactly what he meant by that statement, but also wondered why he moved to the country if what he wants is to make Merrywood just another urban subdivision. I always felt these animals gave the area a unique charm.

"I don't shoot no birds or squirrels and I don't need any more deer, 'cuz I got a 12 point buck on my wall... It don't get no better than that!" I nodded in affirmation.

With the three month drought we've been having here in Southeast Louisiana, animals are moving from their normal habitat to find water. Sighted within the last couple of weeks are predators like bobcat, coyotes and, within our own community, a cougar. The cougar seems to have put a scare in everyone and a dent in our ever burgeoning rabbit population, which I think is a good thing for both animals. How nature planned it!

Of course, in subdivisions of New Orleans like River Ridge, cats and small dogs have been reported missing. Someone caught a mutilated cat and the predators on video and aired it on You Tube, exhorting neighbors to get their guns and hunt down these roving band of coyotes before children get hurt. My first thought was that this sounded like that scene in the movie, "Jaws", when the mayor put a bounty on great white sharks to save the business community from losing their summertime revenue thus creating a shark killing frenzy amongst the local fisherman.

But this was different. People should know that they are cavorting in the shark's element and are at its mercy. To date, no fish has come out of the water to attack a human out on the street. But people have been attacked by cougars, wolves, coyotes, and in these parts, 'gators... though those cases are quite rare. Here in Louisiana, a beaver sized rodent called a nutria is doing great damage to our levees and our wetland vegetation and with no known predators to control their population, all we have as a defense is a gun enthusiast with a .22 rifle and a scope. Still, that doesn't seem to be working.

Something seems out of whack.

Of course, then you have those damn tree hugging liberals who don't believe in hunting or even eating meat! "How can anyone justify killing another one of God's creatures?"

"Well, animals kill other animals to survive," I say. "My cocker spaniel will kill and eat grasshoppers, roaches, spiders, crickets, lizards, frogs, squirrels, if he ever catches one, turtles, if he could ever bit through the shell and has also chased down a rabbit, I mean, an innocent bunny, and taken a chomp out of its right hind quarter."

"That's different! They're animals and can't reason as humans can! We should know better! Oh, look at those soft, brown eyes with those adorable eye lashes... Deer are so beautiful!"

"Yes, they are beautiful, but if we kill the predators 'cuz they have to prey on "Fifi" occasionally or a lamb or calf out west 'cuz they mistake it for deer or elk, then, someone's gonna have to "control" that population. Who or what's it gonna be?"

The strange irony of all of this is that the horrid hunter who stalks and kills his prey, I find, having lived in a rural community now for over ten years, is the most knowledgeable and the most respectful of nature's animals than the city folk. They understand the ways of the predator, accepting and respecting them, but never fearing them. They not only understand the delicate balance, but they contribute more to saving and conserving that balance than non hunters and those "fru-fru's" from LaLa Land or the Rotten Apple!

Although I do not own a firearm, I do find their stories intriguing whether it is tracking prey on foot or taking it down from a blind or a stand as well as stories about the ones that get away. Stories where a hunter has a clean shot on a legal buck only to put his rifle down saying the animal isn't old enough or not a prize animal to take down. This, after waiting all weekend for the right moment.

I see the argument about the human killing machine that we all have deep inside and indiscriminate, blood thirsty blasting for nothing more than the high one gets. I also understand the beauty of nature and of all of its creatures and yet, believe hunters have the right to experience nature in the way generations before them have done. For my sake, I have no problem hunting my prey with binoculars. And, that's always been my problem...

I can see both sides of every story.

Copyright 2011/ Ben Bensen III

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Courtroom Reporter Flies Right...

One of Bill's promo pieces...
I haven't seen this commercial, but it stars my good friend and SILA buddy, Bill Robles' courtroom art. Bill's a courtroom illustrator for CBS for years and who's portfolio includes all the high profile trials including, Patty Hearst, Robert Blake, OJ Simpson, Charlie Manson, Lee Marvin, The Menedez Brothers and just recently, Jared Loughner. Incredible! 
Now, he is on television in a commercial way. Check out this commercial at: Bill Robles Illustrates in Southwest Airlines Courtroom...

Thursday, June 9, 2011

"Well, That's A Heavy Price To Pay, I Said, For A Vinyl Cooler!"

Mr. Junior Martin talking that accordion talk...
At the Louisiana Folk Art Tent, I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Clarence"Junior" Martin, who for over thirty years has created accordions for all those who want to "play a harmonica with your fingers." I stood there incredulous listening to the man speak about Cajun music, accordion building and his wife's obsession with all things Coca-Cola.

The sketch I drew is a pretty good likeness of Junior and I am quite satisfied with the overall sketch except it doesn't begin to show all the many kinds of instruments he had available to purchase or just peruse. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if Lawrence Welk owned a few of these babies. While standing around looking at his instruments and listening to him speak, his lovely wife came over to me and asked me if I was interested in selling my red vinyl cooler that housed nothing but a six pack of Dasani water.

"Why would you want to buy this silly thing?", I asked.

"Because, she replied, I collect Coke memorabilia and I have never seen one like the one you have with you!" Would you be willing to sell it to me?"

She then proceeded to tell me how she lost all of her Coca-Cola memorabilia in a fire years ago and has, once again, started up a new collection. I jokingly told her that I'd offer Junior a trade of one of his squeeze boxes for this wonderful red Coke cooler with a picture of polar bears drinking Coke on an iceberg. She said that he might just take me up on that trade knowing how much it would mean to her. She said it, of course, with a wink of her eye.

I proceeded over to Junior's work bench where he went back to work on his next Cajun concoction, drilling, hot gluing and screwing pieces of wood that resembled a clarinet reed.

"So, Mister Martin, your lovely wife wants you to make a trade of one of your accordions for this Coke Six Pack vinyl cooler." For a moment there, I felt like some European trader trying to buy Wisconsin or Indiana from native Indians for some trinkets or beads.

"Oh yeh?" he said inquisitively. "And which accordion would you like to trade for?"

Before I could point to any one of the lovely instruments, he said with a smirk and in his Cajun accent," I tell you what... you can have any of 'deese you desire, but 'da wife comes with part of 'da deal, eh?

"Well, that's a heavy price to pay, I said, for a vinyl cooler!" Do you make any harmonicas?"

Copyright/Ben Bensen III/ 2011

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Just a Little Simple Twist of Fate...

Fujita Scale No. One through Five

The dog barked incessantly for over a minute. I had just put Pierre, our three year old cocker spaniel, in the garage to dry off after having taken a little swim in our back paddock. It was a warm, muggy, but breezy evening in late May and I was surfing the channels for some baseball on television. Pierre rarely barks at nothing, but when I got up to see who might be driving up for a visit, I didn't see anything. So, I walked around the house looking out every window available to give the dog the benefit of the doubt, but saw nothing. No visitors, no kids walking passed our property to visit our neighbor's pool, no mailman, or garbage men, no squirrels, herons, rabbits, turtles or toads could be seen to validate the barking.

"Pierre, I said in an aggravated tone as I walked outside to get a better look, "Shut up!"

I did a perfunctory perusal around the house and when I arrived at the garage door, I stopped to notice some clouds slowly billowing from the south that seemed possibly able to provide some relief from the forty-plus day drought we had been suffering. The weathermen on the tube said our chances of any precip was less than ten percent and they repeated it not more than a few minutes before Pierre starting barking. I stood out there for about five minutes watching as a "squall line" appeared. It had been windy all day, but it was a very humid breeze that now was becoming cooler. Off in the distance, I could hear what seemed to be rain hitting the trees and drenching the parched ground. Living out in the country in rural Louisiana is a treat for the senses in so many ways, but out here, you can hear things that you wouldn't hear in the city. I was amazed when I first encountered Canadian geese formation flying over our house. Not only could you hear their honking, you could actually hear the beating of their large wings as they cruised by. Amazing!

With this storm, there was no lightning or thunder, which is unusual this time of year, just the sound of the rain growing louder. A darker gray cloud came into view moving diagonally across the light gray squall line. Because the clouds bringing the rain was coming directly from the south toward me, it was hard to calculate its speed, but the clouds that came across from the southwest moving northeast was moving at a pretty good clip. Slowly, as big, wet raindrops hit me and the ground, I decided to quickly run over to the small metal shed that houses my lawn tractor and garden tools, to close the doors, but before I got there, I was intercepted by a large gust of wind growing ever more powerful. With the raindrops hitting me ever so fiercely, I decided to head for the safety and shelter of the back kitchen door.

Behind the now closed and locked door, I saw our colorful garden pin wheel turn white as it seem to struggle to stay earthbound. The tall pine trees swayed in all directions as the rains now came hard and heavy and for a brief ten seconds or so, small branches and leaves started flying in, what I'd calculate as easily, a sixty-plus mile per hour gust.

As quickly as it all came, it was gone. The rain lasted for another couple of minutes, but the wind was now non-existent. My staring out the kitchen windows that over looks our back paddock was shattered by a weather alert on the television.

"A tornado was sighted a few miles west of the town of Bush off of Highway 40 and Lee Road," said the reporter as a picture of a gray funnel was shown. Apparently, an eyewitness took a shot of the almost indistinguishable twister with his cellphone and sent it to the TV station.

"Geez, I told my wife, that can't be more than few miles from here!"

Later that evening, we saw the destruction and heard the frightening eyewitness accounts of the aerial attack. Just about everyone said that it happened so quickly, they had little time to react. Luckily, no one was seriously hurt, but the 150 yard wide funnel landed around Five Lakes Road, which is actually about twenty miles from where we live. It destroyed a trailer park, a Cub Scout campground and damaged about 30 or 40 homes within a ten or twelve mile radius.

Naturally, incredible stories abound. A seventy year old woman grabbed her husband and grandson and told them," Hold on, we're going for a ride" as they took shelter in the bathroom. "Thirty seconds, and it took everything," she said. A female Jack Russell/Chihuahua mix was returned to the happy owners after being found a few hundred yards from what was their home. The dog was found huddled in her carrying case where she retreated to at the height of the storm. The move probably saved her life.

My silly little story was, I had divulged a day earlier on Facebook in a lighthearted discussion about dreams, that ever since I was a child, I have had tornadoes in my dreams. In dreams, I am always running or hiding from them or trying to save someone from total destruction. A few caring friends helped me decipher my dreams or recommended a few websites for my night time affliction. It was all good natured fun, but...

The next day, investigators reported the twister to be an EF-3 with winds up to 140 mph. Whoa!

Copyright/Ben Bensen III/ 2011