RL412 - A Poke of Gold

This week, Merlin and John talk about:

The Problem: You never know when you’re going to need more money, referring to John’s uncle Cal who didn’t want to retire although he already had a lot of money.

The show title refers to John’s family coming to Seattle after being of high status in the South and there being people who didn’t want to care about their past, but had a poke of gold and were ready to get to work.

Raw notes
The segments below are raw notes that have not been edited for language, structure, references, or readability. Please do not quote these texts directly without applying your own editing first! These notes were not planned to be released in this form, but time constraints have caused a shift in priorities and have delayed editing draft-quality versions to a later point.

John being off social media, watching music on YouTube all night (RL412)

John's sleep is completely upside-down and he is up until 6am every day. He laid down on he couch at around 8pm, which is the wrong time to take a nap, and he woke up at 9:30pm. He is completely off of social media, but he was still staring at his phone at 4am playing Brick Bracker. Merlin recommends him to get into YouTube with him, which is a nice replacement for social media.

John watched on YouTube the supposedly greatest version ever of Eddie Van Halen’s Eruption live, he watched Lynyrd Skynyrd play Free Bird at the 1976 California Oakland Jam, and Van Halen doing a cover of the song Unchained from Fair Warning in a live version from 1981, which is Merlin’s favorite Van Halen song. There is one from a concert in Oakland where most of the videos come from and Unchained even got some airplay, the one where he jumps off the drum riser where he does a full-on airborne mega split, it is the one where the iconic picture is from.

John watched mostly Van Halen och Lynyrd Skynyrd, once a while a little Blue Öyster Cult, but he did not watch Hank Green talking about his stuffed animal collection or anything. The YouTube algorithm throws up things that are never right and always terrible, it will show him things he has already seen, things he would never watch. He watched some interview with a bunch of people about the time that Jimi Hendrix to ”jam” with Eric Clapton and it was just 10 British guys talking about how Jimi made Eric ashamed for himself because he was so good and so fun.

Merlin will rewatch that video again with the English band with the 3 guys (Be-Bop Deluxe) who do the song Maid In Heaven, a live performance where he breaks a string in the first minute of the song and covers it up for the rest of the song. There is a famous story of Mike Watt (from the Minutemen) at The Showbox in Seattle where he breaks a bass string, which never happens, and he supposedly reached into the back of his duct-taped pants and pulled out a string, threads a string through up to the tuning peck and he is back in tune and off he goes.

Merlin is doubtful if that story is true. John knew a dozen of musicians who can reach up to the headstock in the middle of a performance and make micro-adjustments to the tuning of their strings. John doesn’t even know what the tone knob does on his guitar, so how are you tuning in the middle of a song in the middle of a chord, but he believes it. The whole point of the story is that Mike Watt spent 1 billion hours on tour. Merlin has seen the Minutemen documentary many times and he owns the poster for it, it is mostly conducted in the van, unlike the time Paul McCartney is driving a boat in The Beatles documentary.

John watched some McCartney last night, too. He was in Abbey Road, for some reason there was a film crew there and a bunch of people standing around while he explains to them how the Mellotron works. The music is a good start, but Merlin thinks you have to graduate to what YouTube is good at. Merlin watches a lot of music on YouTube and a lot about music. John saw an incredible thing where Mark Knopfler was sitting with a guitar… John went 20 years and didn’t realize that Mark Knopfler was British, he felt like such an American dude, like they were a Santa Monica band, with the headband, and he plays the Chet Atkins style, like Credence is from California but tried to sound like they were from Louisiana and they sounded more like Louisiana than anybody from Louisiana. John thought that Mark Knopfler learned guitar from Glen Campbell.

John watching Johnny Carson and Letterman on YouTube (RL412)

John was watching The Johnny Carson Show where Glen Campbell is on there with Buddy Hackett and then Don Rickles comes out and there was Dom DeLuise. John watched a half a dozen Carson Show clips and he continues explaining what clips he watched from the 1970s. Merlin recommends Jonathan Winters on Johnny Carson. He is one of a kind and his bits are a pure form of improv.

John and Merlin are a couple of middle-aged Gen-X guys and the writing is on the wall, it is all over, when John’s dad was 52 years old, what else was going to happen? All John wants to do is watch the Johnny Carson show from the era when he would stay up late and sneak over to the TV that took a minute to warm up. He would transport himself to this place and time where… what? It is not that it makes him feel warm and safe, although it does, and what is that? It happened to him when he was in Alaska recently. Is the anyone left alive? The Boomers are going back and watching Leave it to Beaver. Is John the audience for the 1970s talk show culture? The grown-ups were talking to one another and he was jus peeking over their shoulder, but he is the only one watching it now? Who is watching Dick Cavett reruns? He might have a story about Groucho Marx! Merlin is wondering why there is no channel that shows these old talk shows all the time.

There is the 4th Don of this show, the guy with the Letterman stuff, he got it all so well cataloged so that if something comes up in the news or if somebody passes away he can whip together a compilation that day of their greatest appearances. John and Merlin are probably the audience for that. There is nobody like Carson now because the landscape is entirely different. Merlin never gets sick hearing the story of when Letterman went out there and did his bit and Carson gave him the thumbs up and invited him over and that is the night when his career changed. Whether it is Steve Martin, Louie Anderson or whoever, you hear all these stories about these people that got their shot by getting called on the panel and got to hang out.

John has been singing ”Bermuda - Funny funny kind of place” since the day it aired in 1982 and he couldn’t breathe because he was laughing so hard at that stupid Paul Shaffer thing and he has never gone on YouTube and looked for it. Merlin talks about Jimmi Simpson’s bit about Lyle The Intern. John continues talking about Carson episodes, he mentions Richard Pryor who is warm and who even after the incident happened had the confidence to sit between Carson and (George) Carlin and be the only person in the room that anybody cares about.

John would watch young Letterman be kind of mean to people, like the movie Until the End of the World where John just had a headset on that just had 32-year old Letterman being mean to people and they were not entirely sure if it was fine that he was doing this on Late Night TV. John would watch it until he would curl in a ball. Merlin continues to describe the professional rivalry between Letterman and Carson and how Letterman had to invent Stupid Pet Tricks, Man on the Street, or The Guy Under The Seats. Larry ”Bud” Melman was the very first person to appear in the very first episode, he announced the show, and he had worked at a drug rehab clinic before, all because they had to get around the idea that they were cannibalizing Carson.

It is pretty well know that Letterman bid a lot of his shit from Steve Allen. He was so annoyed with everybody, not only at Harvey Pekar, Brother Theodore, or Charles Grodin. John loves the Harvey Pekar comics and had already read them all the first time he appeared on the show, like American Splendor because he had already been an R. Crumb fanboy since early when he discovered him through old Nation Lampoons and The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers that he at 9 yeas old found in his brother Bart’s basement in a box with 1970s Rip Off Press stuff that his brother David had left there (see RL299). Merlin thinks John is the coolest uncool person in the world!

There was nobody at that time that gave one good care about a 9-year old diving into the deep work of R. Crumb and it sure made John. The first time he saw Harvey Pekar he was for sure the only 13-year old who knew every word. He is exactly the guy he represents himself to be and those are uncomfortable shows. Grodin and Super Dave were both great because their bit was that they just could not tolerate Dave in any way.

John’s dad’s family thinking of themselves as high status although they weren’t anymore (RL412)

John’s family on his father’s side had a sense of themselves of having fallen from a high station. John used to mock them for their highfalutin ways and you can still see their manners in him, all the hauteur, and he used to feel: ”What the hell were we that we had any of that attitude?” John’s grandmother made ends meet teaching piano, and: ”Why are we one of the first families of Seattle?” It never computed!

As John did more and more research he realized that they were prosperous in the South before the Civil War. They are all old Virginians who then came to Kentucky, they were not Alabama-South, but the Midwest-South, the first group that left Virginia and went through the Cumberland Gap. When they arrived in Seattle in 1880 at the end of the Civil War they suffered a tremendous change in fortune. There are a couple of houses in Kentucky with big signs out front: ”The Rochester Soandso House where Charles Hannah Rochester, Colonel of the Cavalry” in Danville Kentucky.

They were three brothers who left Kentucky and went to Kansas City in the 1870s, but it was not far enough away from Kentucky and they all ended up in Seattle. John’s grandmother Mary Louise was born in 1884 and all that got transmitted to John because it was only 2 generations that didn’t have any money, station, or power. It is not like they were casting back to Old England, but they had all this attitude because the people who were living with John’s dad, George Alfred Caldwell Rochester was the son of the man that had the house in Kentucky.

There wasn’t a Seattle in 1859, it was a brand-new place and everybody there in 1880 was from somewhere else. You could come there and reinvent yourself unless you felt like you came from the Southern aristocracy in which case you needed to come out there and assert yourself. The place was filling up with people who were saying: ”Don’t worry about my past! I am a new man! Look at me, I have a poke of gold and I am ready to open a saw mill!”, but then there was John’s family who said: ”When the Civil War came through our town we lost the plantation and nobody cried for us. We have a letter in the family where General Grant pardons my great-great-grandfather for having taken up rebellion against these United States!” It is like the Germans in Sudentenland: Nobody was going to return their former Schloß to them at the end of the war.

John’s dad’s sister Julia Lee and his brother Uncle Jack were raised by these people and they didn’t have any money, but they communicated to their children that they were people from high station and those people really looked down on the Mayflower people: ”Oh, the Mayflower? Plymouth Rock? Those merchants? We were in Virginia in 1605!” and they had a completely different take on the United States and what that was, who they were. John’s dad’s reaction as a young man was: ”You old racists need to get with the times!” In his generation he was the leftist firebrand of the family who was a pre-war Civil Rights guy who did not brook any of his mother’s or their family’s old katsu-covered memories, and they called him radical.

John would walk into these rooms with him in his 80s and these old Washingtonian men would turn and go: ”How is the Communist Party, Dave?” This was 2002! His sister, John’s aunt Julia Lee and also Jack, although he was not as political as John’s dad, they rejected all that. They didn’t turn their back on their family and move away, but John’s dad rejected it by standing his ground, he was the 19-year old at dinner who stood there with his fists clenched, eye to eye arguing. He went up against everyone, but he had a sense of humor and it never turned him into a bitter man.

Part of why the Left now is so mad has to do with the fact that we had all this information now for 70 years. None of these issues are mysteries to us anymore, and from the perspective of a progressive thinker there is that additional layer of confused frustration as to why after all these reform, after education is widely available, after television and the Internet has brought enlightenment to the world, how can 50% of the people not get it.

When John’s dad was tilting against these same windmills in 1947 it was plausible that most of the people he was talking to had never considered any of these ideas and their reactions were: ”What?” They weren’t coming at it with a sneer on their face, like: ”You are some kind of pinky!”, but they were coming at it: ”That is the way it has always been and I have no idea why you would want it to be any different!” Dad was able to maintain a sense of humor because he was the first person any of his relatives had ever heard a progressive thought from. They were Southern Democrats who all thought of themselves as Liberal people.

The idea of white supremacy was invisible to them. Their main issue with white supremacy was that they had fallen in their monetary fortunes to a point where they had to start drumming up explanations for why they weren’t the richest family in town. They didn’t fall on misfortune, they lived in a big house, but they no longer ran the county, and it never occurred to them that this wasn’t the ultimate goal. John’s dad was a product of the New Deal and he was the first person who said: ”Has it occurred to you there should be a social safety net?” - ”No!” They had the mythos that goes all the way back: ”We arrived on these shores with nothing but our fancy boots and a land grant of 10.000 acres in the Virginia bottom. Now look at us!”

Aunt Julia Lee received all this information in a very different way. She was a very ambitious young woman and the only daughter and her mother and her aunt both had very different takes on it. They were for their time extremely independent women, but John’s grandmother did it in a Marilyn Monroe-y way where she was independent by virtue of making herself seem like she needed a lot of help, although she was absolutely running the show. She had limited resources, but she managed to maintain the appearance of wealth and the social graces of wealth although she was stringing it.

John’s great aunt in contrast was a professional who in the 1930s and 1940s was selling real estate and cultivating a base of clients who were Seattle’s first families and was again able to maintain the look and feel of people with money, but she was earning a good living and ultimately she became one of the rich people by selling real estate to them, which was an interesting place to live, the in-between space of ”I am still a gentile woman and we do have money, but it is the result of my labors!”

John’s aunt Julia Lee watched these two women in her life and said she was never going to be poor because she saw her mother, and she saw what her aunt was doing and that is the path, but she was not going to marry a guy like her uncle Al who was a man of leisure, which is not how you make a bunch of money. Merlin should have told his wife that. Uncle Cal ended up being on the City Council in Seattle, and that was only because his brother wrote him a letter in 1949 that John still has.

He said: ”You are a man of 45 years old and you think you are retired?” His brother, the elder Junius, had married the girl who inherited the Buster Brown shoe fortune (see RW47) and he didn’t have any way to talk, he was sitting in some house in Connecticut writing his brother: ”Boy, you need to get up!” - ”And do what? Marry a rich lady?” Nobody had any respect for old Uncle Junius except that he had all this money. What Al did was run for the Seattle City Council, but that is not a way to make money, except it was because it bolstered their image as people of means.

Aunt Julia Lee was not going to let any of this get in her way and she found C. Calvert Knudsen at the University of Washington during their freshman year and she saw in him something. They got married and John is 98% sure it was an explicit conversation where she said: ”You get us to the top and I will take care of everything else” Cal had grown up as a boy picking strawberries down in Kitsap County. He was a local Washington Scandinavian.

He got into timber and he went down to Aberdeen, home of the Cobains, which was a lumber town, and he got into logging, he had a poke of gold and he bought a saw mill and over the course of his career he ended up being the CEO of MacMillan Bloedel, he was on the board of Weyerhaeuser, he was a lumberman as an executive and he made a fortune that Aunt Julia Lee then turned into social respectability by saying what her father and her aunt used to say, but she actually had the money and donated to the art museum and hosted benefits and created an incredible temple of class and wealth and taste.

John’s dad was the prince of all these people. His whole family just loved him, he was the light in the room, but he rejected the premise of taste and class. He was the light in the room, but also the thorn in the side. Julia Lee died unexpectedly and left Cal with four young adult kids, but Cal had fulfilled his half of the bargain, he had made the millions, and she had elevated them to statue, but Cal didn’t want to host any cocktail parties, he just wanted to be in the kitchen sautéing mushrooms, he didn’t want to talk! John’s dad said: ”Cal, you got all this money, why the hell don’t you stop and enjoy yourself?” - ”You never know when you are going to need more money!” John was sitting there, pretending to read a magazine, and his dad turned to him, saying: ”What the fuck am I supposed to do with that?” It was so antithetical to the way he thought.

John’s uncle Cal and his aunt Julia Lee built the house in Hawaii where they used to go with his uncle Jack, the one John got the shoes for when he was having Aloha-time (see RL325). The one who left his cane in the car was also uncle Jack. John never drove Uncle Cal anywhere, it was very difficult to connect with him, and if they were ever alone in a room together it was generally a big enough room that they didn’t have to. You could talk to him, but he was always in the kitchen, sautéing mushrooms or something.

Uncle Cal and Julia Lee had had built a house in the Smoke Tree area of Palm Springs and they were supposed to retire there together, but she died unexpectedly and he was left with a beautiful Palm Springs style indoor / outdoor house and did the Seattle snow bird thing where he was in Palm Springs during the winter and in Seattle during the summer. His friends from the Weyerhaeuser family and the Boeings all migrate to Palm Springs at the same time of year and have the same cocktail parties down there that they have up in Seattle in the summertime.

Cal’s youngest son was 10 years apart from John, but they were close, considering that the cousins in John’s family aren’t that close, although one time he stopped calling John and they haven’t talked since. John told him: ”Your dad was this incredibly successful business person, he was on the boards of directors of all these things, he started half a dozen businesses that were all prosperous, what did you learn from him? What did you guys talk about?”

John’s dad never learned a single thing that he didn’t immediately tell John about, he was constantly talking to John: ”Here is what you do in this situation…” - ”That seems like bad advise” - ”Well… fuck you!”, but Cal’s son said: ”My dad never taught me anything! I would ask him about a problem and he would just say: Well, you figure it out!” John had the same experience with him, too. He had some questions about his career and he wanted to learn how these businesses worked, but Cal would just say: ”I don’t remember!” - ”You don’t remember? You are still in these businesses!” - ”Well, you know… It is hard to describe!”, a complete cypher.

The Knudsen-Erath winery (RL412)

John's Uncle Cal dealt with people with money by getting into good wine and buying a winery, to the degree that he had his own label Knudsen-Erath (see RW70), and his kids have now relaunched the Knudsen brand. In the 1970s/80s it was a a viable vineyard, but then they launched Argyle Champaign which was a very fashionable sparkling wine on the West Coast for a while, and then Cal leased all of his land his tasting room and all of that to Erath who continued to make a successful career for himself in wine, but it turned out that the Knudsens owned all the land and all the grapes and they were just leasing it to other vineyards.

About 10 years ago Cal’s 4 kids got together and decided to take it all back when the leases expire and they are going to relaunch Knudsen vineyards and they are going to make Pinot Noirs again and they are making a good go of it. The property is in Central Oregon around Gresham and Dundee and they own these rolling hills with grapes, and that is how Cal was able to put himself into all these rooms because he was casually swirling wine in a glass, sniffing it and having something to say about its nuttiness and its overtones of leather while John’s aunt was swooping around really vivacious.

Sean Nelson being related to Bob Einstein (RL412)

The character of Super Dave Osborne was played by Bob Einstein (”What kind of name is that?”, see RL239), the husband of Sean Nelson’s mother’s sister. Bob's brother is Albert Brooks (his real name is Albert Einstein) and Sean is close with all of them. He would periodically refer to Albert Brooks as a relative and he got a lot of strange stories about his family and old money.

Their house in Nashville is Redoubt number 4 where you drive up a mountain through many subdivisions and you turn into what looks like somebody’s garage, but it turns out to be a little road that goes between two condos, like in the Peter Sellers movie Being There where he is the Zion of a rich family, but he is incompetent, and yet he stumbles into being the butler for a rich guy in DC. There is a scene where you are driving down a Highway 101 type of thing with motels and fast food restaurants and you turn off of that street into what looks like a hole in a brick wall and you arrive at a palatial estate that was built a long time before the trashy commercial boulevard. Merlin finds it a very delightful movie and he would also like to have a redoubt.

It was called Redoubt number 4 because the Confederate Army was shelling the union as they came through the valley from this redoubt, one of the places from the battle of Nashville. You are driving up a hill through rows and rows of middle-class town homes and the first time John went up there he was wondering where they were going because he did not picture Sean’s family living in one of these row houses, but when they were very far into a strange beehive suburbia they took a right between two dumpsters and through some aperture and all of a sudden they were on the park-like grounds of the Nelson-family mans that is the entire hill-top.

There are town-homes stretching to infinity at your ankles, but as soon as you are through the portal you can’t see them anymore because the house that sits up at the top is surrounded by many acres of lush forest. It is very much a Castle in the Sky like in the Miyazaki movie, a rambling weird house where you wonder: ”Another bedroom?” - ”Well, this is the bedroom where great-aunt Jane had 11 parrots” Sean is very cryptic sometimes about his family. His step-father and his father was a member of some organization.

Racism and antisemitism at The Seattle Tennis Club in the 1950s (RL412)

John’s dad's best friend in law school was black and John has talked about Judge Tanner quite a bit. He was big deal, but in the 1950s the fact that he had graduated from the University of Washington law school was still fairly notable. A whole generation of black judges from Seattle all came from the University of Washington and from Gonzaga during that era, and they were a new generation of young lawyers. John’s dad felt like they were the young lawyers.

John's dad grew up at The Seattle Tennis Club and was there for the sports while his mother and his aunt were there for the status, but when he realized in 1955 that they didn’t allow Jews and he couldn’t bring his friends there he quit, which was like he returned his MBE. Even today The Seattle Tennis Club has a waiting list of 10 years to get into it, and John's dad renounced his citizenship in this horse-shit organization, while Cal and Julia Lee didn’t, they just said: ”Well, that is David!”

Meeting Bob Einstein at Uncle Cal's Palm Springs house (RL412)

One time around 1999-2001 John and Sean were driving across America in a car, just the two of them, but John doesn’t remember how or why and what they were doing. They were on their way through Palm Springs where John's uncle Cal had his house. John could never be 100% sure that Cal would recognize him from time to time - he probably didn’t have object permanence when it came to humans, that had always been Julia Lee’s job - but he still called him up and got invited to stop by. Sean also called his aunt who lived in the same area and who wanted to meet them for dinner.

When John and Sean were at Cal’s they were milling around the swimming pool while Cal sautéed some mushrooms. As Sean mentioned for Cal that they were going to have dinner with his aunt and uncle, Cal offered him to invite them over. As they were sitting there, none of them was sure what to do with their hands, none of them drank anymore so they couldn’t do the thing with the wine, the doorbell rang and in came Sean’s aunt, a very beautiful blonde woman of means with rings on every finger from the Los Angeles area, fit and tan and dressed in white. She was used to be the center of attention.

Behind her came Super Dave Osborne in his way that seems like he is in a different time bubble than you are in. Super Dave Osborne is comedy royalty for Merlin. Sean and John are big guys, but although Super Dave is bigger than they both are he doesn’t take up the oxygen in the room. His wife is the one who is doing the talking and making the action happen. Cal takes up no oxygen in the room, and Sean and John are used to fighting like two grizzly bears over one salmon if the attention is the salmon, by just batting at the fish.

Super Dave sat down and they started to have polite cocktail conversation. Cal had never heard of the Smothers Brothers, he didn’t know who Dave Osbourne was, and he asked him what his story was. Bob started with: ”Well, my name is Bob Einstein!” - ”Einstein? What kind of name is that?”, which was an antisemitic remark. Sean and John both rolled their eyes, but Bob Einstein had been living in Hollywood his whole live and was not phased by this at all, it was not his first day. Cal had an unreflected-upon antisemitism from not ever having thought about it or been exposed to any Jewish people, but it is just that generation and how they thought about the world.

Bob's father named him Robert Einstein and named his brother Albert Einstein, which means that Albert Brooks spent the first 20 years of his life as Albert Einstein until he got old enough that he could change his name. Their dad thought it was hilarious! Albert's humor and the shy awkwardness he brings to his performances coats his character in Broadcast News as a neurotic Jewish guy. Imagine that character in the context every day at school, like: ”Hey Albert Einstein!”

Sean had never really spent that much time with Super Dave, he is always at some big gathering where he is over there in the corner, but here they were, this was the dinner: John, Sean, Cal, and Mr. and Mrs. Super Dave, and they were trying to find a conversation. What are they going to talk about? Big Band music? ”Artie Shaw? What kind of name is that?” They arrived as the Clarinetovicz family.

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