Before going into corporate communications, I worked as a reporter for daily newspapers in North Carolina and weekly business journals in Florida. I interacted with mayors and homeless folks, minor celebrities and murderers, hugely successful business people and shamed embezzlers. My diverse beats included City Hall, education, crime, travel, music and banking. I also found time to freelance for the Detroit Free Press, Bloomberg Business News, Orlando Sentinel and others. Below are several of my newspaper pieces (more appear in my self-published collection, A Decade on Deadline.) To view a selection of my articles published by American City Business Journals, go here.
Visiting the South Side, I Found My Blues Heaven
Chicago is one of the world's great cities, a destination offering enriching experiences for all ages and interests. I've traveled there a few times over the years and can never soak up enough of the place. During my most recent trip I indulged in a perfectly prepared filet at Gibsons Steakhouse, browsed the stacks of used books at Powell's, visited the Jazz Record Mart, strolled Grant Park and drank a few at the subterranean Billy Goat Tavern.
My most memorable experience took place when I jumped on a city bus along North Michigan Avenue and rode patiently to the heart of the South Side. I hopped off and ambled a couple of blocks to the old Chess Records building at 2120 S. Michigan Ave., pictured on the left and now home to the Blues Heaven Foundation. I handed over the modest entry fee to take a guided tour of the old recording studio and soon learned I was the only guest for that particular session.
A few of the nicest folks spent almost two hours with me, showing me the rooms where Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Howlin' Wolf and Chuck Berry (and later the Rolling Stones and Yardbirds) committed their musical magic to tape. It was one of the most hospitable welcomes I've ever received. They even sat me down with a bowl of popcorn to watch a short historical video about Chess. To top it off, Willie Dixon's gracious daughter greeted me, handed me her business card and wished me well.
I caught the bus back to my hotel on the Miracle Mile, floating in an almost dreamlike state after spending such a blissful afternoon in blues paradise.
Wishing for No Speed Limits
Jacksonville Business Journal - June 23, 1995
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Everything else in my life will surely be disappointing now — I’ve driven a Lamborghini Diablo.
I never expected the guys at Automobili Lamborghini USA Inc. to actually let me get behind the wheel. When I visited the company’s Deerwood Park headquarters last November, the offer wasn’t made. Perhaps they were in a good mood this week.
“Just let me know when you want to drive,” said the company’s service manager, Dana Fisher, after about 10 minutes of him driving the two of us through the quiet, curvy roads near the Lamborghini building. “Cool,” I said. “Anytime’s fine with me.”
He stopped the car, we swapped seats and suddenly I was in control of a $241,000 Italian‑made sports car capable of zooming from zero to 60 mph in 4 seconds and reaching a top speed of 202 mph. Awesome.
Pressing the gas pedal ever so slightly, the V12, 492‑horsepower engine shifted from a purr to a roar. It felt like a rocket ready to whisk us off the earth. Of course the roads near Deerwood Park aren’t suited to excessive speeding — nor am I able to handle the expense of another speeding ticket — so I stayed below 60 mph. At least I think I did. I wasn’t paying much attention to the speedometer. I do know that I never got beyond third gear (the car has five).
The car’s exotic looks certainly attract plenty of attention from onlookers and passing motorists. But the real thrill of driving the Lamborghini Diablo lies almost exclusively in its ability to accelerate rapidly. It’s all about power and speed.
“Driving that car is probably the equivalent of being in a fighter plane taking off the deck of a carrier,” said Howard Walker, the United States editor of Car magazine, which is based in London. “It’s phenomenal acceleration. It’s just this tremendous responsiveness.”
The downside of driving a Lamborghini is the way you keep thinking about it long after the experience is over. It makes you want one badly, craving for a repeat performance. It’s addictive, and it’s a drug unavailable to those without whopping bank accounts.
Thousands View 'Lady Godiva' Tax Protest
High Point Enterprise - May 1992
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — They came to see the naked lady.
Thousands gathered yesterday along downtown sidewalks here to witness a '90s version of Lady Godiva ride nude on horseback in protest of higher taxes. The unidentified 20-year-old woman who portrayed Lady Godiva was not really naked — she wore a flesh-colored bodysuit and a long blond wig. But the event was a real attention getter.
Most spectators simply watched while others said they were here for the purpose of the parade: to take a stand against an increase in city property taxes. According to English folklore, a naked Lady Godiva paraded horseback through Coventry, England, to protest high taxes in the 11th century. And her novel approach succeeded, persuading rulers to back off their plan. Will this modern day re-enactment work?
“I have my doubts,” said Jim Hartman, a city resident who watched the proceedings. “They (the city) are going to do what they want.”
Joe King, an acclaimed Winston-Salem artist and colorful character, organized yesterday’s ride with the backing of a volunteer group he called “Concerned Citizens Against Higher Taxes.” City officials recently said the tax rate would need to go up — possibly 41 percent — to balance the city’s budget. “I want people to become well acquainted with what the city is doing with taxes, and I would like to see some alternatives to raising taxes,” said King, a white bearded man of 77.
Spectators stood on sidewalks and peered from office windows to catch a glimpse of the Lady and her escorts decked out in medieval attire. A crowd of photographers and reporters pursued the parade down Fourth, Liberty, Fifth and Summit streets. “I’m out here to look, like everyone else,” said Michelle Lowe, who with her co-worker, Beth Hege, used lunch hour to watch the spectacle.
Although the news media has focused on 41 percent as the proposed increase in property taxes, that figure is not an accurate portrayal of what the city is considering, says Chris Gorelick, a city budget analyst. She said the city’s current rate of 53 cents on every $100 valuation may see an increase of only 18 percent. A final proposal goes to the city’s Board of Alderman May 21.
Did the event live up to expectations? “I think it went very well,” King said after the parade. “Don’t tell anybody, but I got a big kick out of it.”
The artist, who has painted portraits for Queen Elizabeth II and former President Richard Nixon, would not tell reporters the name of the attractive young woman who played the part of Lady Godiva. “She wishes to remain anonymous,” he said.
Traders Twist and Turn with the Dow
Orlando Business Journal - November 3, 1997
ORLANDO, Fla. — Stockbroker Robert Janssen stands up, kicks his chair away from his desk and begins pacing frantically in circles. "I've got 15,000 people screaming at me," he barks into the phone. "Everybody here is swamped right now."
He hangs up, peers into his computer screen and curses explosively. Something obviously is awry, but there's no time to fret: His phone is ringing again. "Empire, Robert speaking."
It's 10:12 a.m. on Oct. 28 — the morning after the Dow Jones industrial average plunged 554 points, or 7.2 percent, forcing the New York Stock Exchange to close early in the wake of a global stock sell-off. Janssen and his co-workers at Empire Financial Group Inc. in Longwood, an Orlando suburb, are embroiled in another frenetic day and have watched the Dow slide steadily downward since trading opened at 9:30 a.m. And the "sell" orders keep rolling in.
"I'm usually not in here," says Empire President Kevin Gagne, who has joined his underlings in the firm's cramped broker room and is pressing a phone to one ear.
"You must be here to lead your troops to battle," quips Janssen.
Indeed, Empire's brokers are in combat mode, unsure of what twists and turns the stock market will take today and unable to answer the overflow of calls pouring in from the firm's retail customers. The scene is similar just down the hall, in the trading room of sister firm Advantage Trading Group Inc., a "third-market" trading operation
that deals exclusively with institutional investors.
"What the ----?" yells an Advantage trader, throwing up his hands. "It's crazy right now, just crazy." Suddenly, at 10:20 a.m., after a dizzying first hour of trading, the Dow abruptly shifts direction. "This is insane," says another Advantage trader. "The market's going back up."
Standing behind the row of stressed-out traders is Richard Goble, president of Advantage and co-owner — with Gagne — of the two sister companies. He says today has been the most hectic day he's ever witnessed at Empire/Advantage, the largest locally owned brokerage/trading business in Central Florida.
"Things get exciting in here usually, but today is a first," Goble says. But while the brokers and traders around him strike a frenzied pace, Goble is philosophical. Such market volatility is predictable, he says, because the Dow has risen to unprecedented heights in recent months. He blames jittery investors for much of the stock market's
downward spiral. "Some people are selling their entire portfolios," Goble says. "That's just idiotic. You can't panic."
Says Goble of his emotionally exhausted traders, some of whom earn six figures while still in their 20s: "They come to me all the time and say, 'I love my job.' Then two months later, they burn out and quit." It's not because the hours are long. Each day, traders arrive shortly before 9 a.m. to prepare for the market's opening, and they usually leave at 5 p.m. or shortly thereafter. But while they're working, they're really working.
"They barely have enough time to go to the bathroom," says office manager Shawna Price, whose duties include fetching breakfast and lunch for the traders so they can eat at their desks.
At particularly busy moments, frantic traders yell orders at each other and throw note pads and other office supplies. "When they get stressed-out, you'll hear them call each other scum-sucking pigs and the like," Goble says. "But I just tell them not to take anything personally."
By noon, the buyers are back in the market. The Dow is up more than 117 points after falling nearly 190 points earlier in the day — and relief shows on the faces of the traders at Empire/Advantage. In the afternoon, the Dow continues to venture further into positive territory. In fact, the Dow chalks up its biggest point gain in history and volume tops 1 billion shares as Wall Street quickly recovers from the financial turmoil in Asia that sent the market
spinning just 24 hours ago to its worst-ever point loss.
"The (market) is going to go up and it's going to go down," Goble says. "You just have to hang in there sometimes."
On this day in stock market history, the Dow closes up 337.17 points, or 4.7 percent, at 7,498.32, beating the record 257.36-point gain set on September 2 this year.
King Petty Rules Randleman
High Point Enterprise - October 27, 1992
RANDLEMAN, N.C. — This normally quiet mill town of about 3,000 inhabitants became the bustling center of the NASCAR universe yesterday. Thousands of racing fans descended on Main Street to experience the 4th annual NASCAR Days Fall Festival.
The star of the show was, of course, King Richard Petty, who lives just down the road in Level Cross and who is the undisputed granddaddy of stock car racing.
In appreciation of Petty’s monumental career and his generous contributions to Randolph County, the Randleman Chamber of Commerce unveiled a statue of the perpetually grinning racer near the corner of Main and Naomi streets. The brownish clay sculpture, by Seagrove artist Ad Vanderstaak, drew cheers from those gathered for the unveiling ceremony.
“This is something different here, man,” Petty said, sauntering around the statue, checking his likeness from different angles. The 5-foot figure, not including its base, is quite a bit shorter than the man it honors.
Ken Faucette of Randleman stood with a group of friends in the parkng lot of North State Telephone Co., which donated the land for the statue. He called the monument “a shot in the arm” for his hometown. “I think it will be a real asset for the community,” Faucette said as a cool fall breeze whistled through the trees.
David Caughron, the chamber’s executive director, estimated the crowd’s size at 100,000. Although Main Street was teeming with locals and visitors of all ages, it seemed hard to believe 100,000 people could fit along Randleman’s modest main drag.
The local chamber sponsors the NASCAR Days Fall Festival, a Southern fried shindig that lets fans revel among a variety of booths and displays featuring posters, T-shirts and other assorted racing regalia. The event also includes live bluegrass bands, food vendors, crafts, rides like the “Mini Himalaya” and appearances by famous NASCAR drivers. The festival drew an attendance of about 65,000 last year, and coordinators of the event believe Petty’s Fan Appreciation Tour this year may be a reason for the larger turnout yesterday.
Which is good for Jamie Coble, 16, who was selling fudge to raise money for a trip to Washington, D.C., that she and some classmates from Eastern Randolph High School hope to take soon. It would be hard to quantify what Petty has done for Randleman, Randolph County and the entire Piedmont Triad, Coble said. “He’s really contributed right much,” she said.
Randleman police officer Ken Dawkins strolled through the crowd, making sure things didn’t become unruly. “We’ve been very fortunate,” Dawkins said. “This has been a good operation.”
Upstart Brewery Taps New Markets
Orlando Business Journal - May 24, 1999
MELBOURNE, Fla. — By all appearances, happy hour is just around the corner for Indian River Brewing Co. The 2-year-old beer maker expects to turn profitable this summer, thanks to a spate of contract-brewing agreements, new products and an aggressive marketing push.
“Then maybe I can start drawing a salary,” quips Bruce Holt, the laid-back president of Indian River.
The Melbourne company makes so-called “hand-crafted” beers, also known as micro-brews. It started with two varieties, Amberjack (red) and Shoal Draft (pale ale), and recently introduced two others, Pirate’s Brew (light lager) and Festival Lager (a keg-only product).
The rich-tasting brews appeal to what the industry calls the “beer aficionado movement,” which apparently is growing in popularity. Sales of such specialty beers jumped more than 20 percent between 1996 and 1997 (the most recent statistics) while the overall alcoholic beverage market remained essentially flat, according to U.S. Beverage, a Connecticut-based alcohol sales and marketing company. “We’ve seen an explosive demand for high-quality, non-mainstream beverages as the American palate grows more sophisticated,” says Joe Fisch, president and CEO of U.S. Beverage.
Since its inception in 1997, Indian River has concentrated mainly on perfecting its products and developing an effective distribution network. Holt says it’s been a difficult undertaking — and he’s still hesitant to predict financial success. “This is my fourth start-up company,” says the northern California native. “Anytime you start a business from the ground up, it’s a risk.”
But at the moment, Indian River seems to be making that crucial transition from fledgling enterprise to successful small business. The company already has built its customer base to nearly 300 accounts (beverage stores, grocery stores, restaurants and bars) in Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin and New Jersey. And Holt expects to add another 100-plus accounts in the largely untapped Orlando market by the end of 1999.
Aside from introducing new beers of its own, Indian River has landed two potentially lucrative contract-brewing agreements with other beer makers. The company began brewing Hardhat beer for American Brewing Co. of West Palm Beach last October and started brewing a beer called 11 Ball this month for Fresh Beer Co. of Fort Lauderdale.
On top of that, Indian River recently inked a contract to package alcoholic “hard cider” products for Kelly’s Irish Cider, a large beverage company based in Ireland.
The goal, according to Holt, is to produce great-tasting brews and build Indian River into a highly profitable venture for its 55 investors. “We’d like to have an exit point for our shareholders in the next five years,” he says, explaining that Indian River could go public with its stock or sell out to a larger beverage company. “But we aren’t there yet.” Last year, the company generated about $500,000 in sales. Holt expects sales to rise 50 percent to $750,000 in 1999.
On this balmy Monday morning, Holt is overseeing the filming of an Indian River television commercial in his well-manicured Melbourne Beach neighborhood. He has arranged for a voluptuous blond model from Miami to serve Indian River beer to several of his friends, who are pretending to be tired and thirsty after doing yard work. A cameraman captures the action for a spot that will appear on Time Warner cable channels in Brevard County. “We want to create more product identity,” Holt says.
Across the causeway in downtown Melbourne, Indian River Brewmaster Jack Owen is hard at work at the company’s 11,000-square-foot brewery, pouring buckets of hops and barley into monstrous, steaming fermenters.
Owen, the developer of Indian River’s unique brews and one of the company’s three full-time employees, takes great care to include just the right amount of ingredients.
“Everything needs to be perfect,” Owen says.
Bring On The Beatles
High Point Enterprise - December 31, 1992
HIGH POINT, N.C. — One of the great things about playing music is that you can strike it up just about anywhere at any time. It’s not like a painting or a book — works of art that are created and then left untouched by the creator.
Music is composed and recorded, like other forms of art, but music can be performed live again and again. Which brings me to recent criticism of the three surviving Beatles, who may perform together soon for the first time since the pivotal quartet stopped playing 22 years ago. Some people, including the editorial board of The Philadelphia Inquirer, believe the reunion of Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr would be a mistake, something that would tarnish the history of the band.
They argue their position well. “As we hear them on Revolver or see them in A Hard Day’s Night, the Beatles are, like fine works of art, perfection that shouldn’t be messed with,” says an Inquirer editorial published this week.
Granted, making changes to original, master tapes of the band’s songs would be disgraceful. That part of the Beatles is complete. But Paul, George and Ringo still live and breathe and — as individuals — play music. And their art, which follows them wherever they go, must be released. That’s just the way musicians are. It’s tragic that John Lennon, the articulately deep Beatle who was assassinated in 1980, can’t be with the remaining three. But he certainly would approve of his buddies doing something as simple and important as expressing themselves.
McCartney recently disclosed plans for the surviving moptops to come together for “the definitive Beatles documentary.” Yes, Paul said, “there is a chance that we actually might do a little bit of music for it.” That’s great. Sure they won’t sound like they did more than two decades ago, but they can still play, and we’re lucky to have them.
“Although individual members may have each gone on to make beautiful music, the Beatles retired as a group at their collective peak,” the Inquirer editorial grumbled. “Let it be.”
Well, maybe the band did quit at the right time, but it must be stressed that music doesn’t necessarily “peak.” It’s always there, lurking in the musician’s brain, ready to leap forward and brighten the day. Great visual artists like Vincent Van Gogh and Georgia O’Keeffe didn’t take their paint brushes to already finished pieces, so the Beatles shouldn’t revisit their craft, critics contend.
Well, wake up. Music is different than the visual arts. It can be played and played again, and should be. The listening public has much to gain by seeing the remaining Beatles together, and even more by hearing the monumental sound they can make.
Big Sur Stuns California Visitors
High Point Enterprise – December 15, 1991
BIG SUR, Calif. — The nearly 80 miles of mountainous coastline known as Big Sur amazes travelers with stunning views of the Pacific Ocean. About 3 million motorists and campers come through here every year along California Highway 1, soaking up what has been called the most beautiful drive in the world.
But before heading out here, there are a few things the modern tourist should understand. There are no frilly shops. No rollicking nightclubs. No movie theaters. There aren’t even any stoplights.
Big Sur gained its reputation as a slow‑paced, soul‑enriching refuge through its natural majesty, not its social scene. In fact, with fewer than 1,300 full-time residents, this community at the edge of America appears at times to be deserted.
The snaky, two‑lane Highway 1 hugs the coastal hillside, dropping almost to ocean level then soaring hundreds of feet above it. Even in clear weather conditions, driving requires attentive maneuvering. Some travel guides warn tourists with a fear of heights to avoid this route. But for those who need to renew their relationship with nature, Big Sur provides the perfect location and any effort to get there is rewarded generously.
There are things to do besides peer from the overlooks that dot the rugged coastline. For instance, a visit to the Henry Miller Memorial Library might interest fans of the author’s work as well as those curious about local history. Miller was one of the most famous writers to call Big Sur home, settling here in 1944. Others moved into the area to live permanently or seek temporary solitude, including Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, both of whom played integral roles in the Beat Generation literary movement.
Kerouac’s 1962 novel, “Big Sur,” chronicled his brief stay in a cabin high above the booming Pacific. The central, autobiographical character escapes from the harassment of fame in the city to get some peace and quiet. Images of spiritual awakening on the California coast, however, suddenly become themes of loneliness and despair. But the author didn’t leave Big Sur without offering some telling descriptions of the inspirational landscape.
“Big elbows of rock rising everywhere, sea caves within them, seas plollocking all around inside them crashing out ... Yet you turn and see the pleasant woods winding upcreek like a picture in Vermont,” Kerouac wrote.
Conservation has been uppermost in the minds of environmentalists and the few residents of Big Sur, and for the most part, they have succeeded in turning away developers. In many respects, the region remains primitive and wild. On one side of Highway 1, the Pacific relentlessly pounds the dramatic cliffs. On the other side lies the green Santa Lucia mountain range. Hidden in the hills are scattered cottages that, by ordinance, must be constructed so they cannot be seen from the road. Although there are designated paths to the beach at several points along the coast, many of the rocky coves are inaccessible.
The settlement of Big Sur (it is not a town) is generally considered the stretch of Highway 1 between Carmel and San Simeon, where the monstrous, stunning Hearst Castle attracts hordes of sightseers. Los Angeles lies about 200 miles to the south, San Francisco about 130 miles to the north.
The limited accommodations at Big Sur include the luxurious Ventana Inn, an oceanfront ranch in the mountains favored by celebrities, whose daily room rates range from about $150 to $700. The Big Sur Lodge, located in Pfeiffer‑Big Sur State Park, offers rates of between $70 and $110 for a two‑person cabin. The best bets for campers are the Ventana Inn’s 40‑acre camp site, the Big Sur Campground & Cabins and the designated camping areas in the state park.
There are several small grocery stores and motels along the coastline of Big Sur, but don’t come here expecting the things you left back in the city.
Jazzman’s Example Influences Today’s Rockers
High Point Enterprise – February 23, 1992
HIGH POINT, N.C. — I discovered the music of the late jazz saxophonist John Coltrane several years ago through what seemed like unlikely sources: rock guitarists.
By reading issues of Guitar Player and Guitar World magazines religiously, I learned everything I wanted to know about Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Eddie Van Halen and a zillion other lesser‑known masters of the electric guitar. Whenever influences were mentioned, a wide range of obvious names popped up. Muddy Waters. Willie Dixon. The Beatles. The Who. The Clash. Every now and then, though, some guitarist would cite Coltrane as having inspired his playing style. It made me wonder, “An old horn player influencing a rocker?”
After picking up some Coltrane recordings, I spent a great deal of time listening to what repeatedly had been called a revolutionary sound. At first, I was discouraged. I had bought one of his later albums, which contained the song “Ascension,” a free‑form tapestry of sonic dissonance. There was something to it, I just knew, but I wasn't sure exactly what. Then, I reached into Coltrane’s earlier catalog, including recordings he made with trumpeter Miles Davis. Coltrane’s tone was smoother and more graceful. His hyperactive execution was there, but it was more accessible because it was cloaked in a standard jazz format.
As a guitarist seeking new ways to approach my instrument, I was forced to ask serious questions after hearing his expressive saxophone. What was he trying to get across? Why was he willing to lose a potentially larger audience of listeners to break new ground? How dare he play with such ferocity? Suddenly the complicated, aggressive style of Coltrane’s later playing made sense to me. This was a man who believed he had no choice but to play the saxophone like every breath he blew would be his last. He got inside every note.
I finally figured out why the former High Point resident, who died in 1967 after changing jazz forever, has been so respected by rock musicians. Rock music is based on urgency and unrestrained passion. At least the best rock music is. I’m not talking about radio‑oriented popular music. I’m referring to that broad range of rock from Hendrix, Cream and Led Zeppelin to the Sex Pistols, the Replacements and Nirvana. These bands with an edge, a burning delivery, are not to be taken rationally. Music is based on a mathematical theory, but once that foundation is laid, the rest is feeling.
With his uninhibited, sometimes raw sound, Coltrane could have been a rocker. But his format was jazz, and he stuck with it. Perhaps Hendrix and Coltrane can be compared most easily. I believe they are more alike than any other two musicians. I hear the same phrases in their playing, the same vibrato, the same inflection. Both were possessed by what all serious musicians hope to be possessed by: an otherworldly muse that gives them the ability to laugh and cry and live and die through their instruments.
Though their presentation was often rough, Hendrix and Coltrane were effective at reaching into the listener’s soul and shaking it up. These soundsmiths had something important to say, and the only way to release it was through their respective musical tools. Coincidentally, Coltrane and Hendrix will be recognized next week with Lifetime Achievement Awards from the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences.
They’re both gone now, having died before they reached old age. But Hendrix’s explosive string‑bending and Coltrane’s dizzying bursts of tonal energy still spin around in my head.
Wondrous, Humbling Yosemite
High Point Enterprise – November 24, 1991
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. — Some stretches of highway leading here seem surprisingly lonely, with only an occasional Winnebago or Volkswagen bus cruising amid spectacular mountains and lakes.
But the closer you get to Yosemite, the more signs of civilization you stumble across. And by the time you drive from the entrance of the park to the Yosemite Valley floor, there are so many tourists it’s hard to believe you’re in such a natural wonderland.
Many travelers might be appalled with the crowds, which are heavier in the spring and summer. But they would only be cheating themselves if they chose to avoid Yosemite because of its popularity. It’s clear why the visitors are here. This 1,200‑square‑mile park is irresistible, beautiful, completely mesmerizing. At the same time, these cheap words hardly begin to describe the national treasure.
Mammoth granite domes reach toward the heavens, soaring over sparkling waterways and towering sequoias, redwoods and Ponderosa pines. Waterfalls plunge in a splendid display of otherworldly power, crashing into granite at the base of sheer, dramatic cliffs.
Yosemite became a national park in 1890, largely through the efforts of naturalist John Muir, who convinced President Theodore Roosevelt to accompany him on a journey through this breathtaking region that crowns the Sierra Nevada.
Most of the 3 million tourists who come here annually begin their visit in Yosemite Valley, a seven‑mile‑long, one‑mile‑wide swath. The valley contains the most famous and obvious wonders of the park: the 3,604-foot‑tall El Capitan granite mountain face, Half Dome, Bridalveil Falls, the Merced River and Cathedral Rocks. The cliffs here have been very popular among mountain climbers, some of whom have been killed or crippled by falls from the monstrous sides of the rocks.
Millions of years ago the entire Yosemite region was covered by a vast sea that spread deep into California. Sediment from the sea and from subsequent glaciers and glacial lakes formed the flat floor of the valley. Over time, plants grew in the valley and later, grasses and trees.
Despite the encroachment of visitors and automobiles in Yosemite Valley, it remains an awesome sight. There might be a tour bus zooming down the road 100 feet from your campsite, but also not far away are deer roaming free. The valley has survived, displaying a sensual blend of open meadows, wildflowers, woodlands and wildlife consisting of deer, black bear and more than 200 species of birds.
Though the valley takes up only seven of the park’s 1,200 square miles, it offers several campgrounds, lodges, shops and restaurants. In the entire park, there are 900 miles of trails to cover by horse, mule or foot only, many leading north to areas covered in snow seven months of the year. There are 360 miles of road to traverse by car, and bus tours are offered at reasonable prices.
A humbling feeling grips you as you peer at the majesty of Yosemite, probably as it possessed photographer Ansel Adams, who captured the essence of the park in his well‑known black‑and‑white pictures. Your body weakens as your eyes absorb the magnificence of the glacier‑carved valley and its smooth, giant rock formations.
If you’ve never had a spiritual awakening, this would be a good place to start.
In San Francisco, the Beat Goes On
High Point Enterprise – February 16, 1992
SAN FRANCISCO — This place rocks and rolls with a graceful intensity, even in the absence of earthquakes. As one of America’s most famous and favorite travel destinations, San Francisco offers more than enough fun for anybody.
Attractions include an ethnically diverse selection of restaurants, some of the most magnificent hotels in the world, dozens of art galleries, the Golden Gate Bridge, cable cars and seemingly endless rows of restored, Victorian homes in a rainbow of colors.
When a visitor scratches beneath the surface of this city’s outward charm, however, he discovers the myriad characteristics that make it a truly remarkable cultural mecca. A late‑night stroll through the Italian‑flavored North Beach neighborhood could be the best way to experience what it’s all about. The scent of rich cappuccino floats from side-street cafes. Delicatessens brim with fresh garlic bread, pasta, vegetables and meats. Yuppies, contemporary hippies and tourists fill brew pubs and dark, hole‑in‑the‑wall hangouts.
City Lights Bookstore, at the heart of North Beach, brings out the artsy crowd for which the district has long been known. Writers, musicians and painters have been descending on these streets, amid the rolling hills of downtown San Francisco, since before the district was considered the crossroads of the Beat Generation. The bohemian “Beats” attempted to unnerve the establishment while exploring uncharted ideas and levels of consciousness. The movement, which lasted from the mid 1950s to the early 1960s, was led by such innovative authors as Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Besides the book store and the enchanting Vesuvio Cafe, both of which endured the death of the “Beats” and continue to thrive largely because of their nostalgic charm, very little is left of those days.
Across the road from both establishments, Tosca Cafe beckons a sophisticated bunch of assorted movie luminaries, artists, professionals and out‑of‑towners eager to star gaze. Actors Sam Shepard and Robin Williams are among some of the famous ones who have hung out at Tosca regularly. On a recent visit, my brother Matt and I spotted at least one notable movie star, Keanu Reeves of “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” fame.
Nearby are plenty of topless bars and jazz clubs, one of which attracted our attention into the wee hours one summer morning. A jazz trio was working out to a small, attentive crowd at Pearl’s Jazz when members of a foreign jazz combo walked in to check out some authentic American music. Within minutes, the Siberian Jazz Express, in town for a string of gigs in Oakland across the Bay, took the stage and performed some fiercely inspired tunes, transcending national borders.
Granted, there’s so much this vibrant city has to offer that no reporter could mention it all. Chinatown, Haight‑Ashbury, Union Street, Fisherman’s Wharf and virtually every other district prove that San Francisco remains one of the most charming and diverse cities in the world.
If you come here, stay a while. There’s plenty to see and do and taste and hear.
For These Guys, It’s Quality Not Quantity
ESP Magazine – September 9, 1992
GREENSBORO, N.C. — Serious guitar players are sensitive to every nuance of their instruments, and if something’s not quite right, they’ll gladly do whatever it takes to fix it. A little too much bow in the neck. An incessant buzzing of strings on the frets. An instrument that won’t tune up properly. Any of that can drive a player batty in no time.
That’s why many finicky guitarists plunk down good money, sometimes extravagant amounts of money, to find the perfect machine, the one that will satisfy their every tonal desire.
“Come to me and you can get what you want,” says Bob Rigaud, who’s been repairing, designing and building a variety of stringed instruments since 1978. “We build them from the ground up, so what you want is what the guitar’s gonna be.”
Rigaud makes about four guitars a year, primarily acoustic guitars, at his String Works shop in Greensboro. They range in price from a modest several hundred dollars to $2,000. It all depends on what types of wood and parts are used, he says.
Several others in the Triad design and build precision, custom guitars. There are guys like Rigaud, and Denny Lash of Winston‑Salem, who builds about six instruments a month, and there are others who aim much higher in terms of numbers. Ken Hoover, president of Zion Guitar Technology, and Keith Roscoe each say they make up to 50 electric guitars a month. Of the Triad’s “luthiers,” or guitar makers, Hoover and Roscoe are probably the most well known outside of the state.
Though all of Hoover’s Zion guitars are of the same shape, they come in a plethora of configurations. Guitarists can choose from a variety of high‑end hardware, controls, tuning pegs, fingerboards and pickups. Price range: $1,195 to $2,495.
“I catch anything that’s not quite right,” Hoover says of his meticulous approach to checking each instrument before it’s shipped to a retailer. A customer rarely returns a guitar to Hoover due to a mechanical problem or even a small inconsistency in the instrument “because we’re so careful,” he says. Zion instruments are available at selected dealers around the world. The company’s Greensboro shop, where technicians carefully assemble all of the essential pieces, doesn’t operate as a retail outlet.
Musicians who reach for the mass‑produced, big‑name guitars in most stores basically have to settle for whatever they get, the local guitar makers say. Some of them are fine instruments, others are lemons.
“You just go in and accept what they have decided is the best,” says Hoover, who once turned down a designing job with Fender guitars, a market heavy. “We’re sticking to our guns here. I do what I like to do. I’m not a cog in the big machine.” But these guys don’t really compete with the market leaders. “We’re not scaring Gibson or Fender out of their socks,” Hoover admits.
Many players never stray from their love for the classics: the Gibson Les Paul, the Fender Stratocaster and Telecaster, the Martin acoustic. In fact, the most influential guitarists in rock, jazz and other forms of popular music have created their art with the enduring, distinctive designs of the major companies. But musicians know that for every perfect or near‑perfect Gibson or Fender, there are at least a few that prove unsatisfactory. The more economically able players have the resources to track down the rare birds — generally Gibson and Fender models dating back to the 1950s and ‘60s — and fork over the necessary dough. Vintage guitars demand even more money than most fine custom instruments.
Zion has created guitars for some noteworthy popular musicians and groups, including Chicago, Alabama, Billy Joel, Kansas and L.A. Guns. The company doesn’t, however, offer the instruments for free to these musicians in exchange for high‑profile endorsements. “We don’t do that for economic reasons and for philosophical reasons,” Hoover says. “I’d rather treat everybody the same. If these guys get something for free, then it doesn’t mean much to them. We’d rather it be more of a heartfelt situation.”
Zion and Roscoe Guitars ship instruments all over the world. Their ads have appeared in major guitar publications, and their customer bases grow slowly but consistently.
“It’s not an off‑the‑shelf kind of thing,” Roscoe says of his creations, many of which bear the striking, lush paint jobs of artist Eddie Meeks. “It’s completely engineered.” Roscoe’s been selling, repairing, designing and building electric guitars in Greensboro for years.
In Winston‑Salem, Denny Lash wears several hats at S.I.R. Technology, repairing instruments, troubleshooting electronic musical gadgetry and making custom guitars. Lash, a former guitarist for Ike and Tina Turner, engineers and creates top‑notch, precision guitars and basses.
“People come in and say this is what they want their guitar to look like,” Lash says, pretending to scribble a design on a scrap of paper. With his custom instruments, which range from $800 to about $3,000, “I’m trying to give you exactly what you want,” he says. Versions of his JCX series, a line of guitars designed by Jeff Cook of Alabama and constructed by Lash, occupy spots in the homes of a few celebrities who aren’t even musicians: President Bush, William Shatner and Richard Petty, to name a few.
Lash takes his sweet time making guitars. And during the eight years he’s been building them, he’s picked up some significant insights. “You get people’s opinion on what they like and what they don’t like,” he says. For instance, he says, players’ hands are of different shapes and sizes, which can determine how the strings on a custom instrument should be spaced. Every little detail counts.
“When you start cutting corners, you start cutting quality,” Lash says.
Love of their chosen instrument is the common thread linking the souls of these “luthiers.” Most of these guys have played for many years and have had ample time to lose interest in playing, yet they still savor sitting down alone with their guitars and digging into the wood and wire.
“Playing music is a good outlet,” says Lash, smiling atop a stool in his tidy shop off Stratford Road in Winston‑Salem.
In Greensboro, Hoover’s thinking in the same mode. “Music is truly the universal language,” he muses, sifting through a thick stack of letters from foreign musicians requesting information about Zion guitars.
Having a Big Time in the Windy City
High Point Enterprise – April 12, 1992
CHICAGO — Nearly everything here has been constructed on a grand scale.
Monstrous O’Hare International Airport, one of three airports in the vicinity and the busiest one in the world, astonishes many first‑time visitors. The multi‑lane freeways stemming from the airport hum with seemingly endless streams of motorists in a hurry to get somewhere in the nation’s third-largest city.
Downtown, aging neo‑Gothic buildings share city blocks with sparkling, contemporary skyscrapers. The 110‑story Sears Tower on South Wacker Drive stands taller than any other building in the world, watching majestically over the coast of Lake Michigan.
The John G. Shedd Aquarium on South Lake Shore Drive sports the world’s largest collection of aquatic life, and Shedd’s mammoth 170,000-square‑foot Oceanarium gives people a chance to view some of the Earth’s largest creatures — whales.
But the big sound of Chicago’s world‑famous blues music — still very much alive — manifests itself in some of the smallest, darkest, most unpretentious nightclubs. Perhaps the most authentic, gut‑wrenching blues goes down these days at B.L.U.E.S. and Kingston Mines, two intimate, smoky joints on North Halsted Street. A loyal local following can be found hunkered down nightly at tables near the stage, although many a blues connoisseur from out of town has been directed to these bars.
Another night spot worth checking out is Wise Fools Pub, where one snowy night last month Eddy Clearwater and his band set the place on fire with a strong dose of spirited, inner‑city blues. Clearwater, well over 6 feet tall and donning a black leather fringe jacket, contorted his face wildly as he dug his beefy fingers into the fretboard of his guitar. The polished back‑up band, in contrast to Clearwater’s raw musical demeanor, injected funky rhythms into otherwise traditional blues pieces. The players managed to throw their hearts and souls into songs they probably repeat nightly on the local club circuit.
Chicago is the mecca of “urban” blues, which is what “primitive” blues became when the genre’s players migrated here — beginning in the 1920s — from Mississippi, Louisiana and other parts of the South. In the process of moving to the big, gritty city, many of the musicians traded their acoustic guitars for electric ones and turned up the volume. Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf were among the most well‑known blues crooners to call Chicago home and develop a sound revered by musicians and listeners worldwide. The atmosphere here continues to produce new generations of blues musicians.
Certainly blues isn’t the only attraction in Chicago, a midwestern metropolis of more than 3.5 million inhabitants. Well‑to‑do consumers will love the Magnificent Mile, a stretch of North Michigan Avenue that rivals Rodeo Drive in Hollywood as the center of the shopping universe.
The Art Institute of Chicago features a splendid collection of French Impressionist paintings, pleasing all who love the warm, elegant brush strokes of Monet and Matisse. The Institute lies at the northern end of Grant Park, a 304‑acre strip that separates the city’s edge from Lake Michigan. Buckingham Fountain, a 280‑foot‑wide structure with jets of water reaching 135 feet into the air, is the focal point of the park. It’s the fountain shown during the opening sequence of the Fox television network’s “Married with Children.”
A casual walk through Grant Park last month burned away visions of a fast‑paced industrial city, offering breathtaking views of Chicago’s solemn skyline from underneath peaceful, snow‑covered trees. Much of the newly fallen, 8‑inch‑deep snow throughout the park hadn’t been trampled.
Visitors to Chicago could easily spend days at the Shedd Aquarium, where fresh‑water and salt‑water aquatic life — nearly 8,000 fish, whales, dolphins, sharks, sea otters, harbor seals and others — splish and splash in all their colorful glory. Construction of the aquarium was completed in 1929, three years after John G. Shedd died. Shedd, chairman of the Marshall Field department store chain, left behind $3 million to build the lakefront facility.
The aquarium’s $43 million Oceanarium opened to the public early last year and brings visitors virtually eye‑to‑eye with the beautiful and diverse creatures of the sea. A fellow who works as an animal care specialist at Shedd gave this reporter a behind‑the-scenes look at what goes into making the aquarium one of the hottest tickets in town.
Chicagoans and tourists alike flock to Lincoln Park, north of the central downtown district, to jog, skate and bike. Nearby, Lincoln Park Zoo has some wonderful animal environments in a blend of historic and contemporary designs. The Great Ape House and the Lovler Lion House are among the highlights, and the zoo is known for its marvelous children’s programs.
Of course, to get a commanding perspective of this city, a visitor should head to the Sears Tower and take the one‑minute elevator ride to the Skydeck atop the building’s 110th floor. From there, the view is at least 10 miles in each direction, as long as the weather is clear.
And while you’re in town, try some authentic deep‑dish Chicago pizza. Instead of pepperoni, mushrooms, green peppers, onions and your other favorite ingredients on the top, they’re packed inside layers of cheese and covered with tomato sauce, creating an inch-thick pie.
It’s delectable stuff, especially when digested in anticipation of a night on the town, a cold beer or two and, you guessed it, some blistering Chicago blues.