Friday, December 21, 2007

2007 Ten Favorite Photos

Trinity Rail Express, January: I took my son E. out for a day of riding the Trinity and DART commuter trains in the Metroplex; it was largely rainy and grey all day, but the sun came out for sunset. . .it was wild watching the "Texas Fireball" pass behind a Fort Worth skyscraper before re-emerging for one last blast of glint light. It reminded me I hadn't taken a pure glint shot in a couple of years. . .

The end of the year is traditionally set aside for reflection upon the previous 12 months; it's fitting to take an inventory of the year photographically, through 10 favorite images from 2007. I was tempted to include a couple of the kids, but instead tried to keep the choices non-family in nature. Not surprisingly, my favorite photographs were largely of a "non-traditional" nature, with reference to the "normal" type of railroad photography practiced in the United States. Some might derisively refer to such images as "artsy-fartsy," but to me efforts such as these stretch my own creativity, and I've learned from each one of them.

Click on the photo for a full-sized image.

Where The West Begins: During a late-night photo session in Saginaw, this view of massed U-Haul trailers presented itself. It reminded me of Conestoga wagons rounded up for the evening under a prairie moon. Well, sorta. We're a mobile society, and for many of us, these U-Hauls are the modern equivalent of a sideboard wagon. Round em up, move 'em out. Yeee-haw.'

Rock Island Drive, Irving, Texas: Next three images were for a book project edited by Brian Solomon--a "day in the west" type thing occurring on May 10, the anniversary of the driving of the Golden Spike. Rather than go for the traditional railfan photography, I decided to cover the mass transit operations in the area, and shot Trinity Rail, the McKinney Avenue trolley line in Dallas, and the DART light rail. Here's how my day began: pacing an empty TRE train into Irving on the old Rock Island, headed for its first stop of the day. No expectations that anything would be sharp in this photo. . .it actually turned out as I envisioned it would.

Fort Worth's Urban Tunnel: And here's how May 10 ended: A light streak of the last train of the day passing trough the old Tindal Storage Building in Fort Worth. This will soon be condos; fittingly, it was TRE's creation that helped fuel a gentrification of downtown Fort Worth's warehouse district.

Off to the Salt Mines: On board TRE, May 10: I used my best street photographer technique; digital SLR's are a bit quieter than their film counterpart, but not as silent as a Leica rangefinder. No matter, I held the camera at my waist and snuck a few shots of commuters resigned to their workaday fate.

SP 1744 at Alamosa, Colorado, July: On a family vacation to Colorado, we rolled into Alamosa late in the afternoon as the sun dropped below the rainclouds. I wasn't expecting to find the San Luis & Rio Grande's 4-6-0 switching its train after returning from Antonito. It was like turning back the clock to, say, Tracy, California, 1953. . .

Rain shower on the Transcon: Later that week, driving from Santa Fe to Amarillo, we jogged south to parallel the BNSF's former Santa Fe mainline. Amazing number of trains. Miss one? No problem, more coming. Got three trains in 20 minutes here to provide variations on a them. This is the best of bunch.

Up Before Dawn: Often, my favorite shots from a rail trip won't be of the trains. In September, Joe Brice and I were driving to Oklahoma before dawn to meet up with UP's 844 steam engine. In the town of Bowie, Texas, we passed this scene where workers at a machine shop gathered before starting their day. A quick u-turn, roll down the window, jack the ISO on the digital camera to 1600, and the scene was recorded. I really like that small-down, early-morning feel. You can almost smell the pot of coffee.

Oklahoma Centennial Express: While the horde of caravaners following UP 844 that day opted for the 3/4 wedgies along the mostly-straight Duncan Subdivision, we stumbled onto a perfectly placed windmill near the tracks north of Ringgold, Texas. Just got a new ultra-wide Tokina zoom, and was amazed how sharp a lens it turned out to be.

Close to Home: To end this set, a cool "sky shot." Had a great two-hours of photography one day this summer, diverted en route to the Saginaw post office and stumbling in a whole mess of trains in a short period of time. Finally headed for home, made this last image of a BNSF coal train holding out of town next to a pond of rainwater, under the big Texas sky.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Insomniac Photo Gallery

Feeling like crap this morning; sick and I can't sleep. So, hey, let's post a few old photographs!

Wishram, WA, July 23, 1977: A pair of big Century 636's and a smaller C424 clear their throat entering the Wishram yard, coming off the Oregon Trunk bridge over the Columbia River. These big 3600 h.p. monsters were beasts!

Maryhill, WA July 23, 1977: Later that morning and a few miles east, an RS11/RS3 set is in the siding for an eastbound drag behind a former GN GP9 and an RS3. Which one to chase? Decisions, decisions. . . .

Vancouver, WA July 22, 1977: The night before, we visited the home base for all of BN's Alco locomotive, the former Spokane, Portland & Seattle shop in Vancouver. On the ready track, an RS3, three F9B's, and two more Alcos are ready to take the evening freight south on the Oregon Electric to Salem.

Wishram, WA February 23, 1979: En-route to the snowy Blue Mountains and the Union Pacific, chased this eastbound train of Boeing 747 fuselage cars arriving off the Oregon Trunk Bridge; due to the size of the cars, this train will go east to Spokane before heading west to Seattle.

Whitcomb, WA February 24, 1979: While not rare, getting an F-unit on the front of the train east of Vancouver was less likely than scoring an Alco. . .so despite the clouds, we were happy to see ex-GN passenger warrior F3 706 taking a drag freight east, a GP9/C425 trailing.

North Dalles, WA, April 10, 1980: Back then, getting a pair of GE locomotives as solo power east of Vancouver was extremely rare. Here two U33C's, led by strangely-striped 5749, roll up the Columbia River near North Dalles, Mount Hood towering in the background.

Night out with the Knitters. . .

John Doe and Exene, still at it, tearing up the Sons. . .

Years ago, back in my wild college days on the West Coast, popular music was all about New Wave. You had your Blondie, Devo, Oingo Boingo, and leading the charge, The Police. New Wave's bastard stepbrother was Punk, emerging in England as well as New York and Los Angeles about the same time. While New Wave was safe and bouncy, fun to pogo around on the dance floor to, Punk was the real deal: dangerous, loud, sweaty, tatooed and not the sort of bands Johnny Carson would have on his show. From England, of course, came The Sex Pistols. From New York, the Ramones. And out on the west coast, Punk was all about X: Exene Cervenka, John Doe, Billy Zoom, and D. J. Bonebrake. The band went wildly popular around 1980 or so, when most of us suburban white boys were still listening to Boston and Kansas. But that soon changed as college and late-night enlightenment opened our minds, so by 1982 when I ended up at Western Washington University in Bellingham for my last two years of college, I'd graduated to Talking Heads, The Clash. . . and X.

X. . .back in 1980 or so. . .

I saw X only once during their popular punk era: a show in 1983 at WWU, when they filled the student union ballroom so completely and worked the crowd into such a thrashing frenzy that I'll never forget the way our sweat and breath condensed on the ceiling and rained back down on us. X was electrifying: John Doe thrashing on the bass and trading lead vocals with Exene, who mainly slumped over the microphone stand, wailing off-key. D.J. kept time in the background; Billy Zoom was the epitome of "cool," standing straight and solid and hardly moving as he played six string, his blond hair swept back in a perfect pompadour.

Exene, wailing like a cat, up front and center. . .Cindy Wasserman joins the band for vocals. . .
All this, of course, is meaningless nostalgia to those who weren't around for it--and I'm sure there were quite a few folks in attendance last night at Dallas' Sons of Hermann Hall who weren't even alive when I saw X in college. . .but X is still around, and they'd returned to town as "The Knitters," a side-project obstensibly featuring folk and rockabilly--and "cow punk"-- that they'd off and on toured as for almost as long as they'd been X (thie first Knitters record, "Poor Little Critter in the Road," was released in 1985. I bought it on casette tape, to tell you how long ago that was!). Their second record in 20 years, "Modern Sounds of The Knitters" has been released by Rhino.

John Doe. . .

Exene is still up front, older and heavier; John Doe seemingly hasn't aged, familar as much anymore for his acting gigs as his music ("Veronica's Closet"? Really??). D.J. has traded his mop of black hair for a nearly shaved head of grey, making him look amazingly like Cal Ripken Jr. Billy Zoom isn't a part of the Knitters project; Doe is the rhythm guitarist, and Johny Ray Bartel keeps time on the upright bass. And on lead guitar, the legendary roots/folk rocker Dave Alvin, a man with considerable musical chops of his own.

I'd like to say that The Knitters are a relevant and vital part of who X really are, but I really can't. While the music on the first Knitters record is distinct from that of X, Thursday night's show really seemed more an X Show with a different and more stripped-down lineup than it did pure "Knitters." Which, I guess, is understandable, because once you get past "Poor Little Critter In the Road" and "Wreckingball," well, hell, let's bring on "New World" and "Burning House of Love". . . with a contrified beat. Which isn't to say that I didn't enjoy the show, just that most of the time the Knitters got lost in X. Call a spade a spade: The Knitters are a Novelty act.

The Amazing Dave Alvin. . .

The give-and-take vocals between John Doe and Exene as X perfectly fit Exene's wailing cry of a voice, but Exene's voice is so ingrained as the voice of X that it's hard to get past that when the band becomes the Knitters with its emphasis on roots/folk rock. Indeed, the show's best vocal moments were when Cindy Wasserman, the lead singer of opening act Dead Rock West, shared the microphone with John and Exene. As a Dave Alvin fan, I was pleased to finally see him perform in person--the guy is an amazing guitarist--but I almost would've gladly traded a few songs from the Knitters' set to hear him sing as well.
But I don't think the crowd, skewing towards the older demographic (like the author), seemed to mind. To them, it was probably just enough to see X--most of the band, anyway--still up there slugging it out, playing small halls on Thursday nights. Or, to paraphrase the Porter Wagoner song covered, going down swinging.

D. J. Bonebrake, left, and Johny Ray Bartel. . .
Thanks to Mike, who tipped me off about this show and who joined us in Dallas, here's the set list:
Give Me Flowers While I'm Living (Doe and Alvin solo)
Try Anymore (Why Don't We Even (Doe and Alvin solo)
Poor Little Critter On The Road
Dry River
Baby Out Of Jail
Burning House Of Love
Wreck On The Hightway
Little Margaret
Bad Thoughts
Skin Deep Town
Someone Like You
I'll Go Down Swinging
Gone Gone Gone
In This House That I Call Home
Walkin' Cane
The Call Of The Wreckin' Ball
The New World
Poor Old Heartsick Me
Long Chain On
Born To Be Wild

Here's the whole band on stage at Sons of Hermann. . .

Monday, December 3, 2007

Danger Signs, Pt. 2

I'm always intrigued when I pass the above sign just south of downtown Fort Worth along I-35. This is not the nicest neighborhood in the city, ya know, and seeing a sign for body-altering surgery soaring high above razor-wired used car lots and industrial hydraulic businesses doesn't make me feel too trusting about the folks practicing their medicine here. The sign is rusting in places, and the building where the doctor's offices are is kinda shabby and run-down as well. I get the feeling the surgeons are largely catering to a clientele who can't afford the high-end doctors, such as this guy, below:

Now, Dr. Robert Rey is well known to millions from Dr. 90210. If one reads his website, he's got a highly successful practice in Beverly Hills, his own line of body-shaping lingere, and he's a member of the Screen Actor's Guild. I doubt the guys who run the clinic in the photo above have all that. They probably don't have perfectly styled hair, practice karate in their own gym inside a placial mansion, or wear sleeveless scrubs while performing boob jobs. Speaking of boobs: I've never really liked this guy. Look at the smarmy expression? And what's with the Miami Vice clothing? Pluheeze. Would you really want him doing your labial reduction? Watch a little of the show, and see if you don't agree that this fellow is one of the most self-centered assholes you've ever met. I doubt there's a sincere bone in his body. If there were a meteor headed towards the earth right now, it's be a toss-up whether I'd want it to land right on top of this guy, or on top of over-the-top-alcoholic-house-renovator Ty Pennington, seen left in one of his more intelligent poses. If I were to choose between the too-slick pretty boy and the cut-rate chop-shop docs in the hood to do my surgery, I might choose the guys in Fort Worth, right next to the transmission repair shop. Maybe while I'm recovering from my tummy tuck, Ty could come over, demolish my home, and build me a new one I can't afford the taxes on.

Happy Landings, Evel!

Men of my generation lost yet another hero last week when Evel Knievel died, finally, at age 69. Having broken most of his bones several times and cheating death while making spectacular--and not always successful--motorcycle jumps, it was diabetes and idiopathic pulmonary fibrodiabetes that finally did him in.

To young American boys in a pre-Cable/Satellite television, pre-video game, pre-computer age, Evel was our hero. He was bigger than life--brash, outlandish. His ego was as wide as the chasm he attempted to cross in a "rocket cycle." He was perhaps the ultimate salesman, hooking us with his red, white, and blue leather outfits, then reeling us inside on countless Saturday afternoons to watch ABC's Wide World Of Sports. Evel did more than a dozen jumps on Wide World, each time ratcheting up the tension for an hour while we waited for 20 seconds of motorcycle flight. Would he make it? Usually he did; but when he failed, he usually did so spectacularly.
And we ate it up. No sooner was Wide World turned "back over to Jim McKay in the studio," than we dashed outside and set up jumps of our own to execute on our Schwinn Sing-Ray bicycles. It wasn't enough to have a ramp--we needed to jump over SOMETHING, and that usually ended up being a younger sister or brother. For us, it was ALMOST as good as the fountain at Caesar's Palace (where he crashed on landing in 1968, ending up in a coma for 28 days).

What a paradox Knievel was! He wrapped himself in the American flag, extolling his love for the country, while often being the first one to sue a writer for an unflattering story. He preached good old-fashioned American values, while he left his wife of many years for a younger woman, eventually beating her up. He admonished the kids to Stay Off Drugs, but the accumulated pain from his many crashes and 15 major accidents let him to an addiction to painkillers, his fading star turned him to alcohol. Beloved in his hometown of Butte, Montana, he left behind many pissed-off promoters and sponsors who never were paid their share of the gate.

For a while, he was flying high, figuratively as well as literally, making millions of dollars a year not only on his jumps but by lending his name to countless products. An action figure bearing his likeness was a best seller, bumping GI Joe from the top spot as the Vietnam war tarnished the military image. Later, strapped for cash but still full of bravado, he appeared on an ad for a motorized scooter for the infirm. White-haired and frail looking, Evel defiantly gives us a thumbs-up and his best bad-ass look. I don't think he tried jumping anything riding his Legend Scooter (chosen for its "outstanding performance, style, durability and value") but I probably would've watched it on TV if he did.

Old enough to be your grandfather, tough enough to Kick Your Ass--if you'll help him off the scooter, please. . .

Knievel will probably be best remembered for his failed 1974 jump across the Snake River Canyon in Idaho on a rocket powered with compressed steam. Broadcast live around the world, the jump failed to match the incredible hype and buildup, when the rocket's parachute deployed immediately on launch. Knievel, facing straight down, descended into the canyon, strapped into the rocket, banging off the rocks below, breaking another couple bones and banging his head. He was lucky he didn't land in the river and drown.

Earlier that year, Knievel visited North Richland Hills for a leap over 11 Mack Trucks, broadcast on Wide World Sports. Howard Cosell and "Dandy" Don Meredith--HUGE television stars at the time, hosting Monday Night Football--did the call. "How do you like THAT!" Cosell gushed as Evel cleared the trucks with ease.
No monument or marker denotes the spot where Evel launched himself in the North Texas leap. Indeed, in the past couple of years, the old drag strip where the jump took place, once way out in the boonies, has turned into yet another housing subdivision. Too bad there isn't a big red "X" painted in someone's driveway or perhaps on the street at the location Knievel stuck the landing. I wonder if any bike-riding kids in the neighborhood have ever jumped their bikes over their kid brothers--or if they even know who Knievel was.